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The economic crisis is ongoing. South Africans, however, seem to be facing an economic crisis of a different sort. That is, a crisis in the economy of culture and its preservation. The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra (JPO), one of South Africa’s few professional orchestras, gave its last concert on Thursday, November 14. It is now under bankruptcy protection.
The JPO was founded in 2000, following the tragic downfall of the National Symphony Orchestra. They supplied Johannesburg (and South Africa, given the small number of professional orchestras in the country) with performances of a high standard, as well as opportunities for music education. Their dedication to the art, to educating less privileged youths through music education programs, and to exposing South Africa to music of an international standard, was of infinite value to a country in need of high quality and accessible cultural commodities.
The JPO has been in financial distress for months, if not years, regardless of financial support from large donors such as the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund. Now they seem to have drawn their last breath. In October, Shadrack Bokaba, the orchestra’s Managing Director, announced that the board of the JPO has taken a “formal resolution to start business rescue proceedings.” He also expressed a belief in the situation turning around within the next three to six months.
The blame for the orchestra’s financial situation has been placed on various individuals, communities and institutions. Low attendance levels at concerts, lack of municipal funding, and the international financial crisis among them. The Citizen Online stated that the JPO has had financial troubles since the international recession hit in 2008, with private sector companies such as Sasol and Bidvest Group withdrawing their funding. The Star on November 16 reported that the JPO owed its musicians a total of R2.2 million (the equivalent of at least $300 000). The Times reported that the JPO musicians have not been paid for three months.
A business rescue practitioner has been appointed to assist the JPO with their financial woes. They have been granted a period of six months to get back on their feet. A Business Day article, however, noted that the orchestra will be unlikely to pay off its debts within the next six months, even if the business rescue plans were to succeed. This is alarming considering the funds already owed to its (now unemployed) musicians.
The death of the JPO spells the end of an era in South Africa. As one of South Africa’s only professional orchestras (the other two are the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra), the loss of cultural capital is immense and symbolic. If one considers the online public outcry against losing this valuable orchestra, the effect of its loss cannot be overlooked. Student musicians throughout the country are now, understandably, second-guessing the possibility of futures as professional musicians in South Africa.
The JPO’s demise is an incalculable loss to musicians, students and musical life in South Africa, and its long-term effects should not be underestimated. The cultural and educational future of a country once proud of its diverse cultural heritage and unique ‘rainbow nation’ status is at stake.
Image Courtesy : The Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra