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A labour federation for the arts – good or bad news?

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Xhanti Payi is a writer short of a few bestselling books and a Nobel Prize. He works as an economist, researcher and adviser to various institutions. A staunch believer in clever blacks and would-be clever blacks short of opportunity. Proper pronunciation of the click is optional.

Artists have formed a labour federation, and while this is commendable, it’s also a sad indicator of the state of affairs in our economy, where artists daily have to fight to get a fair slice of the economic pie.

Imagine a situation in which, having given regard to complaints about wages and/or working conditions, and demands for higher and better of these respectively, the employers decided to shut down the company. Not only that – but having fired all employees, that they would start a new company, in the same exact line of business, and hire different employees.

Such were the dramatic events we saw in 2014, when the creator of the long-time popular television soapie, Generations, decided to dismiss striking actors and shut production down with the express intention to open a bigger and even better production.

Imagine the outrage if this occurred in the mining sector or manufacturing plant! We would face unprecedented revulsion from all corners of society.

Somehow this didn’t happen; in fact, consumers, analysts and even leading politicians braced themselves to consume the new product from the same offending company.

Such is the apparent nature of the performing arts as an industry, and the plight of those who lend their efforts and talents in it – poorly treated by the bosses with the full support of our society.

As a response, and indeed not surprising under the circumstances, these actors, including many other players in the arts world, have joined forces to start their own federation. Along the same lines as the likes of Cosatu, the Cultural and Creative Industries Federation of South Africa (CCISA) has been constituted and aims to represent its members and affiliates’ interests on governmental, economic and social levels.

While this is a good move on the part of the affected, it also signals a stubborn problem in how we are managing this economy and treating all its actors – excuse the pun.

At this stage of our democratic dispensation, we should not be starting new protection groups, indicating that our structures aimed at shared prosperity – both moral and institutional – are faltering.

Speaking after the tragic events of Marikana, former president Thabo Mbeki said, “This tragedy and its consequences seem to have signalled a radical weakening of the national labour relations system, which was and is one of the major victories of our national democratic revolution. This system is based on the fundamental propositions that the state should put in place the policies to help ensure a thriving economy and the equitable distribution of the national wealth, and a system of industrial relations which would enable labour and capital to negotiate the specific agreements which would give practical expression to the objective of shared prosperity in the context of … a growing economy.”

To be sure, the arts industry is an important component of our economy, contributing taxes to the fiscus; employment as well as international prestige, as we export fine and performing arts and artists, culture and crafts across the globe.

The move to form CCISA highlights that not all economic participants are getting their fair share, as demonstrated by those in the arts to form their own federation to promote their rights and to claim their share in the growing economic pie.

In their press statement, they said that “the arts will be represented by a single federation that enjoys legislative and bargaining power, playing a crucial advocacy role in effecting change and influencing policy that impacts on the cultural and creative sector…and seek to influence and in some instances, author conversations around new policy issues such as tax structures affecting art practitioners…”

While this is a commendable move that should be celebrated and supported, it is also one that is regrettable because it signals that as a society, we are not yet able to advance the interests of all unless it is by mass mobilisation, and often, tension and conflict. DM

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