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A National Soapy of Attitudes, Mindset & Other Stuff

EVENTS of the last couple of weeks surrounding the Generations16 and the accompanying statements have somewhat played out the general South African psyche, particularly around issues of the creative sector.

Mfundi Vundla had probably not thought broadly when he suggested it was wrong for Sophie Ndaba to compare herself to Charlize Theron. Apart from the obvious “this is not Hollywood” statement; what could be so wrong with the comparison or even better in Ndaba’s thinking or belief that she is a worthy star on par with any top players on the global stage?

Theron is from Benoni so is Ndaba, well Daveyton to be precise. Is there a hint here that Ndaba, Fana Mokoena, Patrick Shai, Menzi Ngubane, Katlego Danke, Nandipha Mpumlwana or any other talented South African artists would have to relocate to and mainly ply their trade in the U.S to be taken serious and for their talent to be rewarded or valued highly?

There’s no doubt that the Hollywood statement has something to do with the kind or amount of production budgets that flow in Hollywood in comparison to those that South African producers have to juggle around. In terms of financial muscle, the two are worlds apart and the Generations actors may be mistaken if they are benchmarking their salary demands on Hollywood scales, which one doubts is the case.

It is fair for the actors to demand that they be compensated relatively to the income generated by a production of which they are an integral part. About two years ago it cost about R130 000 per 30seconds spot to advertise during the Generations’ 8 to 8.30pm slot while a 30 second advert during the soap’s omnibus on Saturday cost about R19 500. As the most watched soap in the land; Generations attracts quite a healthy number of advertisers and added to the production’s income is the broadcast of the soap in several other countries. So, Generations is by no means medium income earner or poor soapy.

However it is also to be pointed out that the Generations16 are perhaps stretching it (at worst they are being manipulative) if they want to complain that R55 000 a month is an insignificant income that may result in some of them dying as paupers. A R19 000 (as per Mpumlwana’s breakdown) take home can go far for a person who knows how to manage their funds and is disciplined enough to live within their means. Lest we forget that apart from a Generation’s icome, for some actors there are other revenue streams such as mc-eeing gigs and voice overs. It does not matter how much more money the artists make they will still die as paupers if and when they fail to curb their tatse for all things expensive – especially if they barely afford them. The fight for a better working environment, improved terms and conditions of the actor’s contractual obligations, long contractual terms so as to have access to financial and other credit benefits are sensible.

 Enter politicians. “There is no doubt that the issues go beyond the Generations cast to include transformation of the industry that has become more urgent and, as government, we will be looking into this issue to clearly identify our responsibility in such matters,” said Arts and Culture minister Nathi Mthethwa in a statement issued by his department early this week.

As far as the wellbeing of South African artists is concerned; there’s good enough reason to doubt Mthethwa’s sincerity and that of his colleagues Mildred Oliphant, Faith Muthambi and the ANC Youth League. The agonies, the general vulnerability, plight and problems of South African artists or the creative sector have been an open secret repeatedly tabled at several imbizo’s with different arts and culture ministers and even with president Jacob Zuma.

Apart from the formation of this or that federation, setting-up of task teams, committees, organising of more imbizo’s and the production of strategy documents there has not been much implementation to get towards the mostly desired results where the protection of artists,  improvement of their conditions and the really impacfull boosting of the creative sector is concerned. The typical scapegoatism of politicians has conveniently seen them blame artists and the creative industry for not being united whenever they are accused or asked for the reason they do not make or have not made necessary and impactful interventions.

It’s easy to figure out the reasons for the politician’s eagerness and desire to have featured in the Generations soup. The whole drama presented not to be missed brand positioning opportunities and a chance to “to be seen to be doing something,” as most politicians and civil servants are wont to say.

Let’s think about it; the catch here was and still is to be seen to be on the side of sixteen popular actors; to hopefully win the hearts and minds of about six or seven million Generations viewers (potential voters); appear on front or page three print media coverage, featuring on headline news on different broadcast platforms and associating with a trending topic on social media. In a nutshell the fired actors and their troubles have been and will continue to be used by politicians to act like they are doing something meanwhile the main goal is to positioning themselves.

That the SABC is the playground for politicians; especially the ruling elite, has made things even more easy to the politicians to enter the fray. With the SABC; government ministers and the youth league can get to flex their muscles, snap their fingers, for people to tremble and for things to get done as per instruction and display how powerful they are without being challenged, called to order or their shortcomings exposed.

About three years ago, actor and film producer Tony Kgoroge had issues with M-net concerning royalty compensation (similar to the Generations’ actors demands) when the channel launched one of its productions, The Wild. A Labour Court ruling on the dispute was to the effect that Kgoroge had no leg to stand on owing to the fact that he was not an employee of M-net but an independent contractor. The government, politicians and the ANC youth league hardly uttered a word during the Kgoroge/M-net episode perhaps because there was not much to gain by getting involved. Even if politicians did try to intervene M-net would have thrown the books at them just as the labour court did.

Perhaps a critical point of departure for the Generations saga needed to be around the nature of the laws (existing or non), rules of engagement and agreements governing the operations and practices of the creative sector. Does the domestic legislation grants certain rights to performers in audiovisual works, including the right to be paid when these works are copied, distributed or broadcast? Is there an existing minimum wage condition for artists that production companies and or employers have to abide by? What is the better option for all parties involved, a freelancer/contract arrangement or a permanent employment?

What we do know is that there was a promise of three-years contracts to the actors that seem to have not been fulfilled which one has learnt was as a result of the pay increase dispute. It has also emerged that Generations actors are independent contract workers employed under a standard freelance contract that forbids them to strike.

The continuing Generations saga may have showed how undermined or lacking in influence and power the unions or artists representative formations may be in the sector. For Generations actors to form their own guild and employ their own lawyer to fight their battles or take care of their interests could mean there was little or no hope that the Creative Workers Union of South Africa (CWSA) and the South African Guild of Actors (SAGA) could deliver a satisfactory service or result.

Minister Mthethwa held a special meeting attended by Generations actors, SABC management and representatives of the Interim Committee of the Cultural & Creative Industries Federation of South Africa. While the involved actors may not me members it would have made sense for the CWSA and SAGA to be part of the meeting. SAGA and the CWUSA; ought to be somehow featuring heavily in the Generations drama especially if the ministers and government are really serious about engaging a collective rather than individuals.

Hopefully the Generations16 saga would move the general South African mentality from taking the creative sector and its practitioners for granted and as mere sources of entertainment.

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