I was recently in France on a cultural exchange residency and travelled to Montpelier to see the debut in Europe of Kelebogile Besong as Violetta in “La Traviata”. We made the effort to be with her on her debut as this career opportunity was made possible by her outstanding talent as one of SA’s top operatic sopranos and she was a participant in the HOPES & MEMORIES project that enabled her to get the exposure in France in the first place. Laurent Festas and I, Co-artistic directors on the project, willingly travelled the 3 hrs from the Auvergne District to Montpelier to share this proud moment with Kelebogile.
There was much excitement as we took our VIP seats in the Montpelier Opera House. There was a hushed murmer as the curtain went up and…. we were greeted by the Technicians of the District picketing the stage in a protest (apparently with management’s permission). Needless to say a memorandum was read out in protest of the changes in Cultural Workers benefits being mooted by the French Arts Minister. The audience in solidarity with the cultural workers applauded them loudly until the performance was further delayed while management tried to coax the workers off the stage. Eventually, after an hour, management cancelled the opening performance and had to re-imburse all patrons, and then the workers were roundly booed and the audience left in a truculent mood. For me, it was a huge disappointment, as I had no other opportunity to see our SA debutante in action, but I was significantly moved and inspired by the organisation of the cultural workers in France.
In France there is a very favourable and complex system whereby cultural workers, most of whom are free-lance, can earn professional hours in the industry, for which they are compensated in their down times enabling them to survive while finding or making their next work. It is a complex system which requires managements to be licenced by the Labour Ministry, and requires the relevant paper work to be submitted every time a performing artist or technician is engaged.
This led me to think deeply about our own creative industries and how few rights and legislation for cultural workers currently exist. Our workers are still not recognised by the Labour Ministry. In fact, the free-lance nature of what we do in SA remains a conundrum. Sure, we have two relatively ineffectual unions of which I know, the Cultural Workers Union of SA (CWUSA) and the South African Guild Of Actors (SAGA) and a variety of civic organisations valiantly trying to represent the industry like the Performing Arts Network of SA (PANSA). However, there seems to be little to no progress in this regard since the advent of democracy in 1994. We still see Free-lance performing artists with no UIF benefits as they don’t qualify as employees, we still see unscrupulous managements working artists for long hours at all hours at their whim and fancy, we still see workers taking jobs for which there are no contracts, and we still see managements defaulting on paying salaries for work done.
There seems to be no political will at government level to address formulation of statutory structures for creative workers. This has to change and now is the time. The Unions, the civic associations, the artists themselves must unite to make their needs heard. They should negotiate and lobby government at the highest level and if they are not heard they should take a leaf out of the book of the Cultural Workers from France. In France, they are refusing to allow the major festivals and productions to continue unless the Ministry comes to the table to negotiate. If the festivals are cancelled the cost to France in lost revenue in Tourism, Hospitality, Accommodation, Media and other ancilliary services will be huge, far more than what government purports to be saving with their proposed cuts to benefits.