It’s all very well for performing artists to leave a rich legacy — but legacies don’t pay the bills

Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic (Designate) and former Executive Dean: Faculty of Law, University of Johannesburg. He recently penned an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 13 June 2021.

”Many performing artists live from hand to mouth, and from one gig to another. No work means no pay and, as result, there have been depressing tales of performing artists who have to work while sick to keep the wolf at bay or who died without a cent to their names.”

For several years now, award-winning actress Florence Masebe has been fighting a lone battle for the protection of actors in South Africa. It’s a battle she has waged through the proverbial mighty sword in newspaper articles, on social media, and which she has taken all the way to Parliament. Despite her travails in making the government wake up to the reality of the plight of actors, Masebe seems determined to make the issue a battle royale, especially because of the government’s indifferent and lackadaisical attitude.

If its demeanour on the matter is anything to go by, the government seems to view the performing arts as a cut-throat, or at worst, dog-eat-dog business. But labelling it as such does not do justice to the trials and tribulations of that sector. This is an industry where a fortunate few performing artists make a fortune and keep it. Some unfortunate ones rake in a pile of money and blast it away as quickly as it came. That said, there is another category, that I sense to be the bulk of the performing artists, who barely survive till the end of their careers and, in the worst cases, lives: the starving artists.

I guess that those who eke out a living in the performing arts sector have their reasons for doing so. For some, I believe, it is because of their God-given talent. Indeed, there seems to be a higher purpose, such as leaving a legacy that inspires many of our artists to enchant us. For this group, fortune and fame appear to be an inevitable consequence of their hard work. However, as recently remarked by the boxing legend Floyd Mayweather, in response to fans who accuse him of ruining his legacy, “They say ‘It’s not all about the money’… well, your kids can’t eat legacy.”

The truth of the matter is that performing artists have needs and financial obligations just like all of us. I suspect, paraphrasing Albert Collins, that if financial troubles were money, we would all, performing artists included, be millionaires. Performing artists are confronted by the same social risks with which we all contend. These social risks include sickness, maternity, unemployment, invalidity, old age, medical care, and death. This is more pronounced now due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The ability of many performing artists to protect themselves and their dependents against social risk is invariably fragile. This is apparent from the countless poignant media reports that follow the demise of many performing artists in South Africa.

The recent passing of the legendary actress, Shaleen Surtie-Richards (may her soul rest in peace) highlights the plight of performing artists once again. Media reports that she could not afford to book herself into a hospital due to resource constraints are tragic. While paying their tributes to her, many of her peers and fans could not sidestep the temptation of highlighting the less glamorous side of the sector.

Following her death, President Cyril Ramaphosa was on the receiving end from various members of the Twitterati for not signing the Performers’ Protection Amendment Bill. This is something Masebe has repeatedly called for, without success.

The question is, how many more should pass on and how long should we wait until something is done about the sad situation of the performing artists, particularly when it comes to their ability to deal with social risks?

This is not an easy task. If truth be told, there are a lot of problems in that sector ranging from allegations of exploitation to the inequitable payment of royalties. As Masebe aptly put it in her video message to Parliament last week, “I am an actor in a country that does not believe in paying royalties for audiovisual performance. The law is not on my side. The lawmakers do not care. Don’t let their condolences messages fool you.”

For this piece and due to space limitations, I choose to focus on the social security side of things and leave the rest to members of the industry and their representatives. Performing artists have a constitutional right to have access to social security. This includes appropriate tax-financed social assistance in instances where they are unable to provide for themselves and their dependents. Accordingly, they can claim social assistance benefits (eg, old age, disability, or children’s grants) if they comply with the prescribed requirements such as passing the means test.

In the field of social insurance, performing artists are invariably excluded from the scope of coverage of many social insurance schemes due to the nature of their work which is at times short-term and the fact that many are classified as independent contractors.

As eloquently pointed out by Adrian Galley in his article, I am the Boss of Me: “Being ‘between jobs’ has long been a euphemism for ‘unemployment’ but, is a freelance actor ever in fact ’employed’? In South Africa, at any rate, even when an actor is working, he or she is not employed, but rather ‘contracted’. You see, actors are considered to be ‘independent contractors’; in other words, to be ‘self-employed’. Aye, there’s the rub.”

It is a fact that many performing artists live from hand to mouth and from one gig to another. No work means no pay and, as result, there have been depressing tales of performing artists who have to work while sick to keep the wolf at bay or who died without a cent to their names.

There are private insurance schemes that performing artists can belong to, such as medical aid and private retirement schemes. However, cover under these schemes is extended to the degree that the monthly premiums are paid. The risks of losing protection during times when work is in short supply is a reality for many artists.

So, it is a given that any attempt to resolve those social issues plaguing the sector should start with paying a decent remuneration to the artists. After all, many honest people sell their earning potential in exchange for remuneration to take care of themselves and their families. While on the issue of earnings, the perennial problem of the non-payment or inequitable payment of royalties must be addressed as a matter of urgency. The president must seriously consider signing the Performers’ Protection Amendment Bill as an issue of top priority.

Whether we want to accept it or not, fame and fortune are mutually exclusive for many performing artists. So, it is high time that South Africa considers the possibility of extending the scope of its social insurance system to performing artists. Two options come to mind. The first option entails broadening the reach of schemes such as unemployment insurance to cover the performing artists. But then policymakers will need to deal with stumbling blocks of how to fund and administer such coverage.

The second option involves the creation of a special fund for performing artists financed through a dedicated levy on the sale of the work of such artists which must include concert and movie theatre tickets. Performing artists can then be afforded an opportunity to claim specified social benefits from the fund when they fall on hard times. This approach seems to be a viable option because South Africa does not need to reinvent the wheel.

A leaf can be taken from the tourism sector’s book where a levy is automatically charged to tourists and travellers staying in hotels or renting cars. If we can do it for that sector, why can’t it be done for the performing arts?

Swift action in addressing the problems raised in this contribution would without a doubt go a long way to ensuring that dead South African performing artists are mourned and celebrated without the — currently necessary — drama against government officers, among others. Wouldn’t that be something, Mr President?

*The views expressed in the article is that of the author/s and does not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

prof letlhokwa george mpedi
Professor Letlhokwa George Mpedi
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