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A matter of survival: Government needs to pay more than lip service to our illustrious music industry


Barry Mitchell, originally from Hout Bay, Cape Town, is the former deputy provincial secretary of the South African Communist Party (SACP). He also served on the coordinating committee of #UniteBehind. He holds a bachelor's degree in politics, philosophy and economics from Unisa.

The music industry has taken a big hit during the Covid-19 lockdown, and while some of the chart-toppers have managed to survive through the pandemic, the talent, often behind the scenes – production staff, backup singers, crews – have been desperate to eke out a living.

“People don’t talk, so let’s talk” – Ray Phiri.

I rarely listened intently to lyrics prior to lockdown, but my “flatmate”, who has over 30 years’ experience in the music industry, reintroduced me to some South African classics – Abdullah Ibrahim’s ode to Manenberg, Ma Makeba’s A Luta Continua, and Bra Hugh’s Stimela are just a few.

We have underestimated and never quite grasped the impact that the music and entertainment sector had on our history and, more particularly, towards the build-up to the 1994 democratic elections.

The notion of a “Rainbow Nation”, despite its idealistic colourfulness, created a platform for political, economic and social reconciliation. Anthemic compositions related to unity, togetherness and the embracing of cultural and linguistic differences in a highly divided society, stirred South African’s psyche to celebrate these newfound freedoms.

The Rainbow Nation term has deeper political roots that relate to cultural and social hegemony. Developed by the Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, hegemony describes the supremacy of ideas of one social class over another: in South Africa’s context, our 1994 democratic breakthrough espoused the notion of nation-building, reversing the dominant ideas of racial superiority and segregation, and replacing them with the idea of equal citizenship enshrined in a progressive Constitution.

Over the past 27 years, we have seen the music and entertainment sectors produce some inspiring talent across genres. Added to this, we have a pool of young artists who have infused South Africa’s cultural and linguistic assets into our own unique style and genres of music and dance, often enthusiastically embraced by international audiences – Master KG’s  Jerusalema is just one example of how our music and dance have created a global trend.

There is, however, a massive disjuncture; a disjuncture that, if overlooked, will merely scratch the surface of the real and sustainable impact that the music and entertainment industries could potentially have in nation-building. 

The disjuncture is twofold – the highly individualistic profit motivation in the sector, and the delink between government departments and the sector itself. Nowadays, a music enthusiast can produce a beat and chart-topping track from her/his iPhone – the pace of technological development in the industry is baffling. How my “flatmate” (who has a few vintages under his belt) can keep up to date with the changes in systems is truly remarkable. But this is the industry – it is highly adaptive and flexible to conditions.

However, while some of the chart-toppers have managed to survive through the lockdown, the talent, often behind the scenes – production staff, backup singers, crews – have been desperate to eke out a living. 

The contradictions between music icons earning millions for a performance versus the backstage professionals ostensibly labour-brokered for the gig, is a global occurrence and a general disparity in the industry. I am not suggesting that the doyens of the industry do not deserve to be well paid for their talent, but perhaps a more considered approach ought to be taken in safeguarding lesser paid workers and ensuring the younger generation of music and entertainment professionals is not sullied by the bling.

The sector and government had been working relatively well in promoting the industry over the past years, developing younger talent and through our various contemporary ambassadors such as Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Lebo M, Black Coffee, placing SA in the spotlight and firmly on the global map.

But there are underlying challenges related to recently soured relations between the industry and the Department of Sport, Arts, Culture and Recreation. A bloated Cabinet in a country facing the quadruple challenges of inequality, unemployment, poverty and GBV is not what we need, but perhaps the clumping together of many distinct areas into one department has diluted the focus and action required to bolster this critical nation-building sector in SA.

Furthermore, many industry professionals feel they have been neglected by the department during lockdown; that the support required by the industry and what was received fell well short of being substantive and sustainable.

At the 3rd Biennial Backing Vocalists and Session Musicians (BVSM) Awards held in March 2020, Mam Yvonne Chaka Chaka spoke frankly about the industry’s frustrations with the lack of support from the department: these are sentiments echoed by many of the industry’s greats. 

The ANC’s discussion document, prepared by its economic transformation committee and titled, “Reconstruction, Growth And Transformation: Building A New, Inclusive Economy”, sets aside a paltry four paragraphs for urgent interventions needed in the sector, bizarrely clumping it together with the jewellery and automotive design industries.

The beauty of our sector lies in its uniqueness. We don’t have to borrow from other nations like the US or Europe: we have the capacity to create our own organic material that garners traction with international audiences. We simply require better industry/department coordination and a deeper appreciation of the importance of the music and entertainment industry in developing South African society based on the progressive ideals of our Constitution.

As a start, representation from the music and entertainment industry must find its place within policy and decision-making bodies. The public and private sector must invest in local talent and there needs to be better collaboration between the department and the industry.

Undermining the importance of music and entertainment, both deeply woven into the very fabric of our culture and history – and which has unlimited potential in the process of nation-building – is a perilous mistake. DM


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