FUNDING CRISIS

Nathi Mthethwa’s department silent as desperate artists stage sit-in at National Arts Council

By Karabo Mafolo and Shiraaz Mohamed 7 March 2021

Thoko Hlahla expresses her views on a live social media platform. The NAC has accused the artists of holding them to ransom which has infuriated the artists calling the NAC liars. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

A group of artists have staged a sit-in at the National Arts Council’s Johannesburg offices since Wednesday, 3 March. They are demanding answers about a lack of payment from the Presidential Employment Stimulus Package. The National Arts Council has met members of the arts sector, but protesting artists are refusing to leave until their demands are addressed.

In a desperate attempt for answers from the National Arts Council, about 20 artists began a sit-in on Wednesday, 3 March at the National Arts Council offices in Newtown, Johannesburg, demanding answers about the R300-million Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme. 

Mercy Pakela (centre) is angry at the National Arts Council and says it has undermined the integrity of artists who have been affected by the lockdown. Pakela has accused the NAC of being corrupt and wants it to be held accountable. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Two days earlier, on Monday, 1 March, opera star Sibongile Mngoma was among those who had sought answers from the NAC. Mngoma said she was dissatisfied with the answers given. She returned on Wednesday, with actor Thami Mbongo and others.  They then decided to embark on a sit-in.

The artists have been sleeping on the chairs, floor and couches at the council’s offices since Wednesday and have vowed not to move until their demands are addressed. They want to know when the council will pay the money promised to grant recipients. A week before the sit-in, the council had announced that the amount initially promised to recipients would be reduced. 

Opera star Sibongile Mngoma addresses an audience via a live social media platform. Mngoma says artists will not leave the National Arts Council offices until they have answers to questions they posed to council members. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

On Friday, March 5 the council said that to date almost R29-million had been disbursed to 264 beneficiaries, including artists and workers from the heritage and cultural sectors. Also on Friday, NAC council member Sipho Sithole said during a Zoom meeting to update artists on disbursements, “whilst we were hard at work so we can expedite the [stimulus package] process, we were told that a group of artists stormed our offices”.

With the hard lockdown, the arts and culture sector has been ravaged by event cancellations. A South African Cultural Observatory study published in November 2020 found that 90% of the live music industry had lost income due to Covid-19 and 25% of artists indicated that they would not be able to continue with any elements of their business under lockdown.

Shaeleen Tobin sees artists as an integral part of society and said, ‘We will not be invisible any more, we will not be the victims of corruption, we will not have our money looted by people who are not part of this industry, we are the pulse and the heartbeat of South Africa.’ Tobin said the group would not leave until satisfactory answers had been given. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The struggling artists drew up a list of demands and questions they wanted the council to answer on the stimulus package. These include when payments will be finalised for those who signed their contracts; when those who were rejected will be notified; a list of those who were paid and how much.

On Friday, other artists came to show support and to deliver parcels of food. They sang and danced in the reception area of the offices.

The group of artists in the reception area before their Zoom meeting. None of the National Arts Council staff arrived at the office during the sit-in. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

At an earlier meeting at the end of February, artists had been told that the amounts that had initially been awarded would be reduced. This was because after approving about 600 applicants, the council realised it would not have sufficient funds for the remaining applicants.

Sithole said that to date, 1,215 applications had been finalised and deemed compliant and that they were “working tirelessly” to finalise the 159 remaining applications. He said that the council would publish a full list of beneficiaries and projects that had been awarded funding on its website, as well as how much they were awarded. 

Protesting artists watch a speaker on a big screen in the National Arts Council boardroom. The group was unhappy with the meeting and said the council had evaded their questions and portrayed them (the group) as having stormed the council offices. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The council drew criticism for its decision to reduce the grant money.

During a question time, Thandile Petshwa, deputy president of the South African United Cultural and Creative Industries Federation, said, “Council decided to build new houses by breaking down other houses.”

“It’s about negotiating with the other party about the changes. [The council] could’ve gone to those signed contracts and asked what can you do without… You don’t just unilaterally decide to reduce [the] amount. It shows disrespect from one party to another,” said Petshwa. 

Romeo Ramuada (left) and Kopano Mokoena sit in one of the boardrooms with food and other essentials provided by fellow artists. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Another artist, who went by the name Jarryd, said that “the answers [given] aren’t directly answering what artists are asking. How did [the stimulus package] run out of budget and is it legal to change amounts in a signed contract? We’ve [already] agreed to pay our artists based on that original amount,” said Jarryd.

In response to the legality of changing the contracts, arts council member Makhosini Nkosi said that once the council realised that there wouldn’t be enough money to go around, it had two options: 

  • Go to court and have the approved applications reviewed and set aside. “But we didn’t have the luxury of time to do that and it wouldn’t be in our best interest,” said Nkosi.
  • Reduce the money so that all the approved applicants get some funds.

The council took the second option.

Ivory Sikepe, who has been evicted for not paying her rent for four months, blames the National Arts Council for her situation. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

It adjusted the guiding figure from the maximum of R25,000 for organisations and R16,600 for individuals per job to R10,895 per job for both organisations and individuals. “This was to achieve the maximum number of jobs that the [stimulus package] programme was intended for and to achieve a 100% grant disbursement to all approved applicants,” the council said. 

“Some will say ‘we accept this’, others will say ‘no ways, we’re holding you to the initial contract’. Which means we’re facing the prospect of litigation,” said Nkosi. 

The group of artists in the main boardroom during the Zoom meeting. The group remains at the offices and has vowed to remain there until its demands are met. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The council was also not willing to spend money fighting in court, said Nkosi, acknowledging that its decision “may not be the perfect solution” but “once we start litigating, we become adversaries and that spoils the relationship”. 

Addressing an audience on a Facebook live video after the meeting, Mngoma said: “I am actually quite shocked that the council came out today to address the industry as a bunch of liars. Their advocate [Nkosi] arrogantly misled the sector. These are the people we are supposed to entrust with our lives and the lives of our children and the livelihood of an entire sector.”

Another artist who was at the sit-in, Beverley Andrews, told Daily Maverick that she was frustrated “because we basically did our projects and our budgets and told the artists that we are creating the jobs and that this is the amount we will be getting and it’s being cut.”

Thami Mbongwa watches the Zoom meeting from his cellphone in the reception area. Mbongwa said, ‘It’s difficult sleeping on the floor. This is not the comfort of our home, but for the benefit of the other artists it is the right thing to do.’ (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

Andrews said that she’d signed her contract in January and had still not been paid. “According to their contract, I was supposed to receive the funds after 48 hours. It’s almost two months and nothing.”

The South African Cultural Observatory study found that musicians were so desperate for money they’d resorted to selling their equipment.

Speaking to Daily Maverick after the Zoom meeting, musician Ivory Sikepe, said:

Supporters of Sibongile Mngoma and her group sing and dance. The dancers, with artists from around the country, showed their support by donating money, food, airtime and other essentials. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

“That [council] is lying, what are we supposed to do when we are hungry? We are hungry. Pay us. There is nothing to say because I am so fed-up there is nothing [else] to say. We have played around the world, but we can’t do anything now because our hands are tied. Since lockdown, we can’t do anything. As I am talking to you my landlord kicked me out. I don’t have a place to stay. I have not paid rent for four months. I am staying with my sister-in-law because of [the council].” 

The arts council said that it was working around the clock to pay grant recipients. Those who had signed and sent back their new contracts should expect to be paid within 72 hours, said Sithole. 

Nathi Mthethwa, the Minister of Arts and Culture, has been silent on the situation and his spokesperson did not respond to queries. 

Last month, artists drew up a petition calling for Mthethwa’s removal after he tweeted: “Theatre is alive and well.” The minister later apologised for the tweet. 

Artists maintain that he is out of touch with the realities of the theatre industry. DM

Gallery

Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 1

  • The arts and theatre have been decimated by the pandemic, yet the department of arts and culture feels that multi-million rand vanity projects like the renaming cities is a priority this year. The minister is completely out of touch with his portfolio and should be removed.

  • SMALL SCREEN

    This weekend we’re watching: Thunder Force with Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer

    By Tevya Turok Shapiro