Cold times for artists

Our artists who entertain us and create meaning in our world are thrown into poverty as government dallies

After losing all their income as theatres and performance venues shut down with immediate effect from 15 March, it took a further two months before a tiny percentage of artists received any relief funding from government.

Of over 5,000 applications from artists seeking relief from the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, only 488 artists have been paid out, eight weeks after Covid-19 relief funding for artists and athletes was announced.

A R150m relief fund was announced by DSAC on 25 March, with criteria for applications announced on 29 March and a submission deadline of 4 April, which was extended to 6 April as many artists were not able to obtain the necessary documents within the time frame.

A list of those who received money was published on the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC) website in the last week of May.

“If we cannot provide relief to artists in a period of six weeks from date it was announced, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we understand poverty,” said Market Theatre CEO Ismail Mohamed during a radio interview on 7 May. It took a further two weeks before money was disbursed by the DSAC, capped at a maximum of R20,000 per artist or company.

But the criteria for obtaining the relief funding remains murky.

Actor Toni Morkel is on the list of recipients and said she received the R12,000 she asked for on Monday 18 May.

However, others involved in the show for the Klein Karoo Nationale Kunstefees, which was canceled and, did not receive any money from the DSAC.

This includes director Sylvaine Strike and three actors on the same project, all of whom, said Morkel and Strike, provided the same documentation about the show.

Strike, an award-winning theatre director based in Johannesburg, said she had four contracts which would have seen her through until November. Despite providing proof of cancellation for all four productions along with other required documentation, all she had received from the DSAC was an initial acknowledgment of receipt and later, a request to resend her tax clearance certificate.

Labeling the R150m set aside by the DSAC, which is to be shared by artists and athletes, as a ‘relief fund’ has also been criticised, as the R150m comes out of the existing DSAC budget for productions and events that were canceled due to the lockdown, rather than being additional emergency relief.

“The Department has therefore reprioritized its budget allocation from quarter one to avail over R150 million to provide the much needed relief to practitioners in the sector,” stated DSAC minister Nathi Mthethwa on 25 March. Thus, this was money the department was already committed to paying.

Over one million people affected

There are 92,163 people directly employed in arts and culture sector stated DSAC Director-General Vusumusi Mkhize in a 702 radio broadcast interview with Eusebius McKaiser on 7 May. A further 335,000 people worked in support of the industry, with the creative and cultural industry supporting a further 698,000 people in ancillary services or crew. Cumulatively, said Mkhize, the sector directly and indirectly supports 1.1 million people. These figures are backed up by those of the South African Cultural Observatory.

SA Cultural Observatory chief economist Jen Snowball said the creative economy contributed R74 billion to the economy in 2018, or 1.7% of the national GDP. If the multiplier effect was taken into account (including people such as an accountant working for a theatre company or catering company employed in the film industry) the sector accounted for 5.5% of GDP, said Snowball.

Further, the arts and culture sector had been growing at 2.4% per year from 2016 to 2018, outstripping the economic growth of 1.1%.

The R150m ‘relief fund’, however, only applies to those 92, 163 artists whose income is solely reliant on the creative sector.

Artists facing a desperate situation

One of the 4,512 artists who applied for relief but has not received anything, is Cape Town film choreographer Didi Moses.

Moses said she sent the department proof of canceled contracts, email addresses and contact details of people who could verify her information, as well as her monthly expenses, but it took six weeks before she even received a response to say her application was declined, but she could appeal.

She said her appeal then bounced back and after much frustration she took to Twitter in a social media campaign to try get a response from Mthethwa, after which she finally received a proper email address for her appeal 60 days after her initial application. Two weeks later, she had still received no further response to her appeal.

“How can you expect us to survive for two months when we’ve been abiding by the laws laid down by the President?” she asked.

She said she has not been able to pay any of her bills, including her rent, and is accumulating a mountain of debt. Even though film companies could now commence work with a maximum crew of 50, it did not automatically mean there was work for crew or actors. Additionally, much of the work came from international companies who were not able to travel here.

Moses, along with theatre producers and actors Mother City News spoke to, only expect to be able to return to any form of regular or semi-regular work in 2021.

Moses said the situation was resulting in breakdowns among artists.

“Some artists I know can’t get out of bed,” she said, adding that at 2am she had to counsel a fellow artist who was considering suicide.

“People can’t anymore.”

There are young artists and those in their 60s who can’t pay their bills, she said, and are in danger of losing their cars, their houses.

Homegrown efforts

Meanwhile, the Theatre Benevolent Fund, established to assist aged or infirm theatre practitioners, along their other civil society and industry initiatives, has be doing what they can to bridge the gap.

In a statement released in May, the Theatre Benevolent Fund (TBF), whose executive is unpaid and voluntary, stated they had paid out R401,000 by way of “about 800 food vouchers” to theatre practitioners after receiving R250,000 from a private donor and R151,000 from other donors. However, the funds are now exhausted and the TBF has had to close its relief fund. The TBF welcomed independent auditing of their relief efforts.

The Feed Our Crew initiative is also providing R500 vouchers to technical crew behind the actors and performers. Mother City News was unable to reach them before deadline to find out how many people they have helped.

No response from government

While the belated disbursement of funds to 488 artists is welcomed, numerous questions about transparency remain, among them the tenders awarded to companies to run live streaming artists’ work on digital platform. A respected industry source said it appeared three companies had been selected but this could not be confirmed as the DSAC did not respond to questions.

Among the questions sent to the DSAC’s ministerial spokesperson, department spokesperson, and chief director of communications and marketing on the evening of 25 May, were:

  1. What percentage of the R150m relief fund as announced by Minister Nathi Mthethwa on 25 March 2020, is set aside for arts and culture, as opposed to sports?
  2. Who are the members of the Arts and Culture adjudication committee for the disbursement of the arts and culture portion of the R150m relief fund?
  3. How many times have they met?
  4. Are they getting paid to meet, and if so, are they being paid at the standard Treasury rate of R1,300 per day, with a day for preparation added?
  5. Is there any representative from the DSAC, or arts and culture more broadly, on the Covid-19 National Command Council? If so, who are they?
  6. Three companies are believed to have been awarded tenders by the DSAC, to create, or facilitate the creation of live streaming digital content. What are the company names?
  7. What is the monetary value of the contracts they have received?
  8. Are these contractors to be paid from the arts and culture section of the R150m relief fund?

Although a read receipt was received 36 minutes after the questions were emailed, no response was forthcoming by the deadline of noon, 28 May, a full two-and-a-half days later.

3 thoughts on “Cold times for artists

  1. I have been a freelance a tor.. Singer. Dancer.. Choreography. Teacher since 1964.. Appeared in TV.. Stage.. Film.. Now totally unemployed. My next film is in November this year

  2. Peoples Theatre is going to have to close down it was reported that we had been issued with a grant from DAC but we have received nothing! We had Jungle Book with great advance bookings schools and private but then Theatres and schools closed! We paid everyone some for 4 weeks and others for 2 till we ran out of money

  3. I have an iniatitive called Waiting in the Wings SA and have raised R105 000 since 11 May. I have now assisted 85 freelancers in South Africa with grocery vouchers. Please look me or the initiative up on FB.

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