Why we need radical transformation in the creative industry

Patrick Shai, in the checked shirt (far left), after a meeting with Cosatu leaders following their sacking from the soapie Generations for demanding better pay and benefits.Picture: Jabu Kumalo
Patrick Shai, in the checked shirt (far left), after a meeting with Cosatu leaders following their sacking from the soapie Generations for demanding better pay and benefits.Picture: Jabu Kumalo

Radical transformation is needed in the creative industry to ensure social justice and economic empowerment for artists, writes Patrick Shai

South Africa is a faceless country wherein the so-called cultural diversity is nothing but an abstract mural depicting a totally unconnected people.

One need not even bother to ask what the soul of the creative industry is.

Because artists are dead inside. Artists are like walking corpses, dressed up and living in make-believe screen houses.

The worst type of falsehood sold to the nation.

Let me say, the artists have no real faces except for the make-up they wear every day to look polished, happy and content.

It is acting after all. They have no real faces. We will agree that anything that has no face cannot have a soul. It is dead.

The performing arts are indeed wonderful. The soul of the character comes through the face.

It is through the face that the consumers of theatre, television and cinema feel the soul of performers.

That much said, South African artists have given their all.

But then in these cultural creative killing fields all they have are bruised, battered and lacerated souls.

The bodies just waiting for that dreaded name “pauper”.

Let me say, the artists have no real faces except for the make-up they wear every day to look polished, happy and content. It is acting after all
Patrick Shai

How many artists have not actually succeeded and cannot afford basic employment benefits, such as medical aid?

How many are credit worthy? Or can perhaps afford a simple holiday?

You see actors as regular features in daily newspapers with hurting and dehumanising headlines.

How long can this be allowed to go on? What are the factors contributing to this paralysis?

It was in 2015 when 16 actors walked out of soapie Generations, citing a number of grievances. Then the public response was not supportive.

The sector did not see the 16 actors as representing the industry by taking a brave stand against all forms of violation of the rights of actors.

Calling for a fair working contract and decent remuneration was a joke.

The opportunity was missed at that time and the country did not seize the opportunity to correct the industry or be brave enough to ask the right question.

These brave selfless artists – just like Vatiswa Ndara, who wrote an open letter to the minister of sport, arts and culture this week to intervene in her plight with the production house of iGazi where she acted – risked it all.

Some have suffered permanent reputational and career damages. But again, just like the Ndara story, veteran actress Mara Louw became another victim.

Veteran actress Vatiswa Ndara. Picture: Oupa Bopape / Gallo Images

The survivalist nature of artists, created by the producers, dictated that many are in a state of readiness to jump at the opportunity for a job. It is the nature of the beast.

In the case involving Ndara and Sisi Mara Louw, it becomes even more disturbing that it is about black on black.

Ndara’s letter involves a person who, back in 2015 when the 16 actors walked out of Generations, jumped to the rescue.

Could this now be the reward for selling out on the industry?

Minister, commission policies are very strict. A new show cannot just be commissioned overnight but Generations the Legacy was to replace Generations.

Perhaps they had to be rewarded for selling out on the soul of the industry and, in the process, they were thoroughly schooled in the art of making actors faceless. And perhaps worthless.

I must put it on record that many institutions and politicians were consulted to help address the concerns of the Generations 16.

We held consultations, at different intervals, with Nathi Mthethwa (then minister of arts and culture).

We were also given an audience with the ANC top six officials, including deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte and then secretary Gwede Mantashe.

Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa

A delegation of the Generations 16 had the privilege of presenting their case before the then president Jacob Zuma.

We even had labour federation Cosatu supporting us big time.

The ANC Youth League had an opinion on the matter. We were organised.

But these efforts produced nothing as the final arbiter, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, then SABC chief operating officer, could not be swayed otherwise as it became apparent at a meeting called by Mthethwa.

It is not surprising for me in particular, that the creative arts environment has not only remained the same since the draconian era of apartheid but it has worsened.

TV actors have no privilege to intellectual property, syndication fees, product placement or product integration into storylines.

I was fired from the series, Bophelo ke Semphekgo, for refusing to accept to shoot the second series under the same financial terms as the first series.

I was told that I would not work in the industry again by a certain white director/producer. There was no negotiation.

My co-actors were watching to see how a black man could be humiliated by being forced to accept less.

I couldn’t. I took my black dignity and walked of set.

Mr Minister, I did not have a house at the time. I was living with my mum in a two-room house with two other siblings. My mother and I slept in the same room, my siblings slept in the kitchen.

But then mine is not a unique a story. I am mindful of people who are homeless and go to bed without a meal.

In the same breath I am not comparing the South African creative industry with that of Europe and the US. I am simply saying this could be made a little bit better.

All I had asked from the Bophelo ke Semphekgo production was that they help me buy a house which, at that time around 1986/87, were going for R15 000.

There was no doubt what the reaction from the production was. I was forced to walk out. Constructive dismissal perhaps?

We were filled with hope when 1994 came. The atmosphere was exciting for the creative industry.

But then our heritage got captured and our stories allowed to be told by Americans of all shades.

This was the beginning of the total disrespect and displacement of the South African screen and television artists.

Winnie Mandela was portrayed by US actor Jennifer Hudson. The point I am making is that ... when that was allowed to happen, it paved the way for South African TV producers to do the same with little budgets.

Over time the actor was just a mere walking voice to read out scripts without a fair remuneration.

The situation is worse for artists now. Growth? Economic stability? What are those things? Medical aid, social security? Dololo!

On some sets there is not even a packet of “Panados” for actors. The artist management companies and independent producers are silent on matters affecting the socioeconomic wellness of artists.

Perhaps I should say that Ndara’s story is not new at all and she is not the only one. The principle is simple that South African cinema and TV should not turn actors into big names.

Just give them enough to ensure the culture dependency. An artist might win an SA Film and Television Award tonight but by the following day is found with no money for petrol.

There is an actor who had become a cult figure on TV drama Zone 14 whose death was reported as suicide.

Another one from the same production was buried under trying circumstances. There was no money for a decent burial fitting an artist.

Actor - Mike Mvelase. Credit: Daily Sun
Actor - Mike Mvelase. Credit: Daily Sun

Recent newspapers screamed about Mike Mvelase – who played Khaphela in Generations – losing his house.

And there are many of us who are facing the prospect of homelessness.

Many of us will be cramped into a public hospital after our bodies and minds have taken the beatings from the generals of the cultural creative industry killing fields.

I salute Ndara for her act of selflessness. You have continued to define this industry. You might not get the expected support but history will prove us all wrong for having not supported you.

Radical transformation is needed in the creative industry to ensure that there is social justice and economic empowerment for the artists in this truly beautiful country.

The artist cannot continue to be defined as a pauper because of the mercenary killing nature of the cultural creative industries.

Shai's suggestion to Mthethwa is that we have an open indaba on the creative industries to investigate how we can explore possibilities for new systems and methods to address the plight of actors. These would include but are not limited to:

. A new commissioning model, with clear directives on how allocated funds are used. How much goes to actors and how much to production?;

. Determine the economic viability of productions going back to SABC Studios;

. Role classification, responsibilities and association of ministries relevant to the creative industry;

. Assist with the unionisation of the sector;

. Set a social security relief fund for screen/TV and theatre actors;

. Get the SA Revenue Service to develop a tax model suitable for the sector. Also, to redirect some of the revenue collected to assist with sectoral development;

. Do away with the “freelancing” and recognise the creative industry as part of the labour sector; and

. Set up an independent ombud to deal with matters of the creative industry – the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration has failed many of us and will continue to do so.

Shai is an actor

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