Opinionista Adrian Galley 11 October 2019

Vatiswa Ndara is the whistle-blower revealing the exploitation of actors – let’s send a clear message: #Istandwithvatiswa

On Tuesday the country exploded in uproar as one of South Africa’s most successful actors, Vatiswa Ndara, published a letter detailing the exploitation of herself and other actors in South Africa. Unfortunate threats of legal action in response did little to address the injustices detailed in Vatiswa’s exposé.

In bravely publishing her letter, Vatiswa Ndara did the unthinkable; she stepped out of line to become a whistle-blower, daring to challenge those in power. It must be said that the producers in question are not the ones holding the real power in the industry she is challenging; they are merely doing their masters’ bidding in whipping her into line. After all, Vatiswa’s insolence cannot be allowed to stand and she will now be made an example of.

Not only will those with delegated power attempt to intimidate her with threats of financial ruin through lawsuits, but there will almost certainly be an active campaign to prevent her from getting further work in the industry. This will also not be the first time this has happened; in the past, actors who have objected to or protested over their pay and treatment have had their career prospects forever diminished. Vatiswa is certainly aware of this, and this makes her actions all the more courageous.

Following Vatiswa’s “audacity”, we expect the powerful exploiters to make use of a familiar strategy: they will deploy their messengers to remind actors, producers and all who work in the creative sector where the power really lies. Creatives in South Africa must be intimidated into begging on their knees, pleading for whatever scraps may fall from their master’s table, lest they realise that they are, in fact, the goose that lays the much cherished golden eggs. That is the real reason why Vatiswa is being targeted with threats. Those who wield authority will flex their financial muscle to ensure that this imbalanced system, the one that benefits them so intensely, is never again challenged.

With that said, it is unlikely that they will stop there; those who prey on actors will deploy their talking heads to explain how this “terrible woman” is damaging the industry, making it less competitive, and scaring away foreign investment. They’ll spend millions on spin doctors and lobbyists to convince the public that a healthy creative economy needs starving creatives to be overseen by executives in expensive suits.

They’ll employ their proxy organisations, like the benign sounding “Coalition for Effective Copyright” which, they’ll proudly declare, represents creatives. Of course, they’ll fail to mention that their AstroTurf creation, in fact, represents Sony, Warner Bros, Universal and other multimillion-dollar local and international film and broadcasting organisations, the real “masters” of the creative sector. They’ll have their lawyers draft articles about how the legislation – designed to reform the creative sector by equalising the power balance – will, instead, destroy the economy and deny creatives like Vatiswa Ndara any chance at generating an income. They’ll send these articles to Daily Maverick, News24 and other outlets, and get them published without any investigation or fact-checking, allowing them to simply appear as fact to any reader not familiar with their shady associations.

Of course, they will do all of this with a simple goal: they want us to calm down, to forget, and to go back to reading misleading propaganda pieces from the likes of Collen Dlamini. They want us to cease putting pressure on the President to sign the Bills that Parliament passed earlier in 2019 and which are designed to prevent this sort of exploitation. They’ll talk about how the Bills are not universally endorsed (which of course they aren’t, the exploiters don’t want creatives to have any power in negotiations). They’ll try to set up fake arguments, based on nonsense interpretations which have no basis in fact; they will claim that the bills will only benefit international tech companies, while ignoring the individuals and home-grown organisations representing half a million creatives, educators and students who are desperately demanding that the exploitation of South Africa’s creatives comes to an end.

So, will we calm down? Will we all forget this story by the end of tomorrow, and let Vatiswa Ndara’s career be destroyed? Will we be complicit in denying Vatiswa the opportunity to inspire us with her amazing performances and abandon her after her fearless stand against exploitation?

Or, will we do something about it?

Yes. We will send a clear message to the exploiters, #Istandwithvatiswa.

We will demand that the President stop forcing creatives in South Africa to put their careers on the line to raise public awareness. We will insist that he instead find the courage of Vatiswa to finally sign the Performers Protection Amendment and Copyright Amendment Bills that have been sitting on his desk for more than six months.

Will we continue to allow all the power in our creative industry to be limited to a few powerful corporations and select individuals, or will we demand it be shared among everyone who works in the industry?

The truth is that, while the power to exploit and abuse is in the hands of multinational conglomerates and individuals with refined palates, the real power to effect change is in our hands. But we have entrusted that power to the democratic process and it is now in the custody of the President.

As creatives and society at large, we all have a simple choice to make: will we stand by and let the rich and powerful get away with exploiting us again, or will we make a stand, and continue to create a more equal, fairer and more just society?

The producers in our industry also now have a choice. They can either continue to act at the behest of those with all the power, and partake in intimidation of Vatiswa and other creatives, or they can join in the fight against the real exploiters who are crippling our industry.

And as for you, Mr President, you’re still holding our pen. Please use it. DM

Adrian Galley is Vice-chair of the South African Guild of Actors.

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