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Saturday, August 29, 2020


(Lynette Marais & Ismail Mahomed)

Ismail Mahomed, the new Director of UKZN’s Centre for Creative Arts (CCA) in the College of Humanities in Durban, was formerly CEO of the Market Theatre Foundation in Johannesburg. He also served as Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival where he worked closely with Lynette Marais who passed away on August 28, 2020. This is his tribute to her:

It is with immense sadness that I share the news of the passing of my former colleague and friend Lynette Marais.

Lynette was the executive director of the National Arts Festival (Grahamstown / Makhanda). I first made acquaintance with her in 1989 when she was appointed to the post. It was the same year that I had visited the Festival for the first time. Little did I know that twenty years later that when Lynette was to retire she would be handing the baton to me.

In the years that followed after my visit to the Festival I took many high school students to the festival. My warning to all students was absolutely clear, “you can mess around with anyone but don’t mess around with that lady who wears a small bun, ankle length skirts and semi-high heels. She is the Festival boss!”

Lynette was more than just the boss of the Festival. She was the Festival’s guardian angel. Over two decades she steered the ship sometimes through the most stormiest seas.

She took it through its years under the Nationalist government and resisted censorship. She channelled the Festival through the State of Emergency years and ensured that the festival celebrated freedom of expression and promoted protest theatre.

She hosted Barbara Masekela upon BM’s return from exile and boldly held a discussion on culture in a post-apartheid society. When the Guy Butler Theatre in the Monument had burnt down Lynette let it rise like a phoenix and she hosted Nelson Mandela when he re-dedicated the building to all South Africans.

She raised millions to sustain the Festival over its two decades and she guarded and spent every cent wisely. She was totally accountable. Not a cent would go astray. She built a strong foundation for the Festival before she handed it over to Tony Lankester and I to steer it into new directions. It was a standing joke that it would take two men to do what one woman did for twenty years. It may have sounded funny but there was immense truth to that statement.

Lynette handed the baton to Tony and me with absolute grace; and she ran the race along with me cheering me from the side and supporting me when the load was a little too heavy. She was my greatest supporter, my most honest critic, my trusted confidant, my respected mentor and a loyal friend. We found that despite our vast ages, cultural backgrounds and upbringings we shared so many similar passions for the arts.

I have yet to meet anyone in the South African arts sector with her depth of absolute passion and commitment for the arts. Lynette epitomized ethics. She had a quest for excellence. She was brutally honest but compassionate in how she expressed her honesty. She suffered no fools.

As she retired and handed the baton to me we became wonderful friends. We had greater laughter together. I would teach her how to fill samoosas and make chilli bites and she would teach me how to pronounce Dvorak, Galuppi, Pergolosi, Schubert so that I didn’t sound like a philistine to classical musical lovers. We both shared a common love and laughter for all art forms; and even though we sometimes laughed at what was presented as art we were ever so cautious that our laughter was never about artists. We shared a deep respect for them. They were the reason why we had jobs that we could love.

Lynette and I had many joyous dinners at my home with friends. We laughed till late at night and sometimes debated even beyond the midnight hour. Lynette loved good food, good wine and good laughter. She had a boisterous laughter. It resonated with absolute joy!

Lynette was a huge force. Almost everyone in the city knew her; and it was not only for her remarkable work for the Festival. Lynette was much loved and respected for her charitable work with hospice, Rotary and the church.

Lynette was an absolute legend. It is impossible to write the history of South African theatre and arts festivals without acknowledging her immense contribution. She was the mother of South African arts festivals. She was a nurturer of arts careers. She was a giant who left great footprints in the sand. – Ismail Mahomed