Vatiswa Ndara’s open letter to the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture https://www.iol.co.za/entertainment/tv/local/vatiswa-ndaras-open-letter-to-nathi-mthethwa-stop-exploiting-actors-34292050 was long overdue. Set aside the specifics of the actor’s beef with Ferguson Films, and the general picture she describes resonates across all the creative industries, including music.
No doubt some fresh idiot at the next funeral will repeat the question, “Why do artists die in poverty?” (The person to whom she addressed her letter is very fond of asking it.) The answer is twofold.
First, artists are part of the people, and most South Africans still live and die in poverty. That’s a much bigger discussion, and one we have postponed for far too long.
Second, artists are also workers, and the labour, contract, and conditions of production issues Ndara raised make the situation even worse.
People outside the industry are often fooled by headlines on the showbiz pages about an artist’s fee for a single event. Events such as arts festivals or stadium concerts happen only a few times in a year. In between, that fee has to cover all living and family expenses, rehearsal and development time on the artist’s craft, the purchase and maintenance of equipment such as musical instruments (at top VAT rate) or attire and other work expenses. Try dividing that figure by the number of weeks in the year when artists go without paid work.
Actors – and sometimes session musicians tied to a studio or label – often work on something close to zero-hours contracts: they have to be instantly on call, so cannot accept other work – but whether and how often they will be called is not guaranteed.
Artists – and especially beginners – are constantly enticed to work for minute (and sometimes no) fees for the sake of ‘exposure’. Conditions on stage and on-set are often squalid, sometimes dangerous, and too often infused with a toxic atmosphere of bullying and harassment (see, for example, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2019-07-18-mbongeni-ngema-removed-from-sarafina-set-after-more-allegations-of-sexual-harassment/ ).
As inner cities gentrify, very often the spots, big and small, that stage live performances are squeezed out by zoning and noise regulations, or demolished to make way for residential property that helps rentiers get rich. There are still very few multi-purpose arts spaces for communities outside the cities in townships and rural areas. Research tells us that live performance remains the lifeblood of the arts.
What performers need is a militant trade union, well-informed about the practicalities and nuances of the labour issues in different arts disciplines, to take on these struggles. The Minister to whom Ndara addressed the letter is the current patron of a government-sponsored artists’ organisation whose existence stands in the way of forming one. CWUSA (the Creative Workers Union of South Africa) may have all the best intentions. However, it is relatively unknown outside its small membership; its mandating processes remain opaque, and its public pronouncements have been, at best, bland and generic. A social security fund for artists – CWUSA’s current main platform plank – would be useful. Attacks on recorded music ‘piracy’ – still its patron’s obsession – are increasingly irrelevant to the current industry value chain in Africa (see https://theconversation.com/its-wrong-to-cut-and-paste-global-north-policies-onto-africas-music-industries-123388 ). Neither of these policy points even gets close to addressing the kinds of structural exploitation Ndara has raised. Indeed, foregrounding them actually de-links artists and their labour issues from the ongoing struggles of all South Africans for a living wage, when in fact it’s the same struggle.
Ndara’s letter rather overshadowed the week’s other big cultural industry story, although the two share common ground: the SABC has been bailed out, but the corporation still owes massive monies to working musicians.
SABC currently owes R250 million in unpaid royalties – a fraction of its bailout bonanza. When Hlaudi Motsoeneng ran the organisation, he promised that playing 90% local music would make South African artists rich. He omitted the condition for fulfilling that promise: “if we actually pay them what we owe”.
Now the Hlauds have cleared and we can see what colour the sky is. Any chance of achieving a useful, realistic local content quota – such as the ICASA-proposed 60-70% – in the forseeable future has been sabotaged by his arrogant bungling; knowledgeable specialist DJs who actually played good South African music have lost their jobs; and the debt to artists remains.
The SABC owes R125.8M to Samro; R104.2M to Sampra; R8.8M to Airco; R3.3M to Risa; and R6M to Capasso. The effectiveness and probity of these collecting societies is in some cases disputed (again, a different issue) – but they can’t pay out what they don’t receive. Musician David Scott of The Kiffness has started a petition to collect on this debt. You can find it here: https://www.change.org/p/sabc-the-sabc-must-pay-r250-million-royalty-debt-to-musicians Signing it would make a start.