CityLife Arts

Vula! President: Hungry, protesting artists tell President Ramaphosa

But their issues have long been simmering for years

By Edward Tsumele

By now many are familiar or might even have witnessed on social media and other platforms the ugly skirmish between artists and police in Durban who  on Wednesday, blocked the N3 Highway and set up a concert in protest about the continued lockdown of their sector.

Although it is possible for the sector to operate under Level 2, strictly following health protocols and other lockdown regulations, such as for example, not allowing more than 50 people in a venue, sanitizing and maintaining the mandatory social distancing, the truth though is, only certain sections within the sector can operate.

For example, it is technically possible for a visual artist, who works alone in a studio, to work normally under Level 2, and even to sell their work online and also on virtual markets that have come up during this time, such as art fairs and galleries. But it is almost impossible for performance artists to organize or perform at a concert or festival that would attract thousands of people as this would collide with the law for example.

This inability to perform and therefore earn a living for artists, almost all of whom have not managed to work for six months now, is what prompted the KwaZulu-Natal artists to go out and demonstrate in the manner that they did on Wednesday. They carried placards calling for President Cyril Ramaphosa to open the sector and allow them to work. However instead of calling for the complete opening of the sector, they called for at least allowing concerts to happen at 70 percent capacity, just like long distance taxis are allowed to do. That way they argued, they would break even at the least.

The issue is, these artists are frustrated, hungry and angry that they cannot work while almost every sector under Level 2 is open, such as casinos, bars, pubs, the taxi industry, and so forth and so on. But not their sector.

This kind of protest is quite understandable for the fact that these are people desperate to send their children to school, pay rent or bonds where they live and save their cars from being repossessed. But also this action and the frustration also has its historical roots with regards to the sector’s relationship with government.

For years, even under normal circumstances, there was real no meaningful dialogue and conversations between authorities, especially the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture, under successive Arts and Culture ministers since democracy, and the arts sector. Whenever there was some form of conversation, it was always to try and solve a crisis that was imminent at some point, but no proactive, constructive conversations that would lead to meaningful engagement and finding long term solutions to complex and simmering problems of  a worker known as an artist in this country.

In other words, the artist has always felt neglected, treated in a patronising if not contemptuous manner by government. It is this trust deficit that is manifesting itself right now, besides the hunger, anger and the frustration brought about by the current restrictions.

For example, artists or rather the sector, has always felt that they are not prioritised, even though they are professionals earning their living through what they do. Artists have argued for certain actions that would make their sector more sustainable, for example tax incentives extended to corporates that sponsor the arts. That conversations has been going on for years, and nothing has come out of it to date. Artists have also argued that If they pay tax, almost always taxed at 25 percent since they are freelancers, the law should give them some form of protection and benefits extended to other workers.  That too has come to naught.

Artists have also complained that when decisions with regards to policy about the sector are made, they are often not consulted enough, ignored or half-consulted by their department, but are then expected to just accept such policies made else about their sector.O often these policies are conceptualized and crafted by academics that and technocrats, that are detached from the day to day issues of the sector.

And so the scene that has seen teargas being used by police and other ugly sights, at  this week’s confrontation between the police and the protesting artists, are a result of cumulative issues that have built up like a mountain since that White Paper that was crafted in 1996 , and which established the framework of the Department of Arts and Culture, was adopted (Its revision was recently completed amidst complaints from artists for not having been consulted adequately).

And so until such time that there is genuine conversations between artists and the authorities about these lingering, complex structural issues bedeviling the sector, Wednesday’s scenes are not the last.

Sibongile Mngoma

And as soon as the skirmishes started and arrest had been made, founder of the recently formed and influential arts lobby group Im4theArts, Sibongile Mngoma was back on the screens of many frustrated artists taking exception to the arrest and the manner the artists were treated. “President Vula (the sector),” angrily shouted Mngoma, repeating the placards carried by the protesting artists.

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