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Bloem theatre torn apart

2018-04-22 07:53

Liewe Heksie disrupted, an alleged stabbing attempt, assets set to be auctioned ... What happened to Bloemfontein’s biggest theatre? Charl Blignaut reports on a court case that has exposed a hornet’s nest

On Tuesday, the largest and most important theatre in the Free State is poised to have its assets attached by the Sheriff of the Court in Bloemfontein.

They will be auctioned to recover R1.4 million amid an ongoing two-year-long labour case against a fired chief executive officer (CEO) who was seen by many to be turning the state-owned Performing Arts Centre of the Free State (Pacofs) around.

The once renowned theatre is today in tatters because of infighting between managers, unions, council and its executive, as well as protracted investigations and court cases.

But Pacofs council chair Afrika Msimang denies the assets are going to be attached or that former CEO Teboho Macholo has any chance of winning his case, which Pacofs took to the labour court almost three months ago.

The department of arts and culture, which funds the theatre to the tune of R40 million a year, has backed the Pacofs council in its decision to pursue the case.

But documents City Press obtained from the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and the Public Protector clear Macholo of any wrongdoing after he faced 18 charges of gross dishonesty, gross misconduct, gross negligence, insubordination and failure to act in the best interests of the organisation in a disciplinary hearing that lasted for almost a year.

Macholo’s troubles began just as the goblins were about to run onto stage during the pantomime Liewe Heksie Flower Power in 2015.

Angry Pacofs union members entered the Sand du Plessis Theatre singing and protesting.

In a subsequent tussle with Macholo, members of the union who were working in management forced Macholo from the building.

The council eventually suspended him and then his chief financial officer resigned, followed by renowned artistic director Jerry Mofokeng.

Despite his clashes with the unions, Macholo, who began working at Pacofs as its chief financial officer, secured three unqualified audits in a row before becoming CEO.

In the three years preceding his appointment, Pacofs received disclaimer audit outcomes and, in their most recent report, an adverse audit opinion.

Msimang, however, insisted that these unqualified opinions were qualified despite proof before Parliament and from the Auditor-General’s records that they were unqualified.

When asked for clarity, arts and culture department spokesperson Zimasa Velaphi said: “Yes, the publicised results confirmed that. However, it was subsequently discovered by the council that these results were inaccurate.”

But in two impassioned letters pleading for help from arts and culture’s Nathi Mthethwa, Macholo insists he was turning Pacofs around before he was fired when five of the 18 charges against him – ranging from an allegedly irregular security tender to the hiring of a tuxedo for an event – eventually stuck.

But these charges were thrown out by the CCMA in December, which ruled that Macholo be reinstated as CEO, and be paid his salary and legal costs for the two years he was out of work, which amount to R1.4 million that will be attached next week.

“It will not happen,” said Msimang when approached for comment. “The matter is now with the labour court.”

She sent City Press a legal opinion that concludes that the CCMA bungled Macholo’s case by not holding him accountable for violating the Public Finance and Management Act.

“Commissioners are also human and it seems the commissioner erred in her judgment of the Macholo matter. Thus the award has been found unreasonable and accordingly reviewable,” she said.

“One of our priorities as council is to reduce the litany of litigation culture at Pacofs, and we shall.”

However, City Press has studied the disputed tender and Macholo claims, in his letters to Mthethwa, that the chosen recipient of the security tender had ties to a Pacofs staff member, which had not been declared.

He chose instead the second-placed bid, justifying that it was a female-owned company that operated in the Free State, unlike the winner.

Pacofs says these factors should have been part of the original tender requirements and were not.

Either way, Macholo’s lawyers question whether the labour court action to overturn the CCMA arbitration award will even go ahead.

Meanwhile the sheriff is standing by to attach assets.

The theatre, meanwhile, is limping. Insiders and audience members point out that the theatre’s website is outdated and dysfunctional, that few original shows are being staged, that press releases haven’t been sent out for years and that the centre, which used to be booked often for ANC events, no longer stages many events, partly because its in-house catering service has stopped functioning.

Msimang did not deny this, but blamed Macholo and the executive. She said Pacofs was turning around and referred City Press to the shows staged there this past month.

She said Macholo could not return because the trust had been broken.

“Sadly, upon hearing about the possibility of Mr Macholo’s reinstatement, some employees went into panic mode,” she said.

Macholo’s letter to the minister ends with a plea to consider his legal costs as the case drags on. Those close to him say he is struggling to pay school fees for his children, as well as the bond on his house.

Msimang said: “I am pained by Mr Macholo’s trials and tribulations. The world requires of us all to open our hearts and activate our capacity to care and to love. However, council has a fiduciary responsibility to protect Pacofs. [Macholo should] not paint himself as a victim.”

The theatre, she says, is on the road to recovery.

Parliament’s portfolio committee on arts and culture did not agree during the presentation of Pacofs’ annual performance plan this week.

“I would say close Pacofs and start afresh,” said one member as the committee lambasted the theatre.

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October 20 2019