Shaking the table: Artists sit in protest

Nearing two months, the sit-in at the National Arts Council’s headquarters shows little signs of abating as the arts department scrambles for the money to honour contracts.

Thick smoke from burning impepho oozes through the offices of the National Arts Council (NAC) on the 12th day of an artist-led sit-in. A day after Sports, Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa snubbed a planned online meeting between protesters and the government department, opera singer Sibongile Mngoma thought the herb’s calming properties might defuse the tense atmosphere. 

From the corner of a boardroom on the building’s third floor, Mngoma has anchored a sit-in over the NAC’s distribution of Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme (PESP) funds. A core group of about 10 artist activists come and go, but Mngoma has not left the NAC’s headquarters in Newtown since 3 March, when the action began.

Intended to “restore our economy to inclusive growth following the devastation caused by Covid-19 to our people’s lives and our country’s economy”, the PESP is part of the South African presidency’s R6.2 trillion economic reconstruction and recovery plan announced in October 2020. 

For the South African creative sector, the PESP is the second and latest cash injection since the first lockdown took effect on 27 March 2020. Over a planned four-month period, the creative sector would receive more than R440 million in employment stimulus, R300 million of which was to be distributed by the NAC in two streams. The first stream was allocated R100 million intended for the retention of sector jobs, while the second stream’s R200 million would create work opportunities in the sector.

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The South African creative sector is typified by short-term, project-based employment that forms part of the country’s growing gig economy. The scarcity of long-term employment, little wage oversight and a lack of organisation among workers are some of the factors that have made the creative economy’s labour market prone to vulnerability. 

For performers such as Mngoma, backline technicians, support staff, administrators and others in the South African creative economy, the inability to work during the Covid-19 lockdown periods has further exacerbated their precarious financial situations. The more protracted the period without income of any kind, the more workers in the sector approach destitution. 

15 March 2021: From left, Sibongile Mngoma gets support from Thoko Hlala in the National Art Council’s boardroom, where artists are staging a sit-in to protest the mismanagement of funds. (Photograph by John Hogg)
15 March 2021: From left, Sibongile Mngoma gets support from Thoko Hlala in the National Art Council’s boardroom, where artists are staging a sit-in to protest the mismanagement of funds. (Photograph by John Hogg)

At the sit-in Mngoma said, “We all want to be able to work. We all want to have the dignity to provide for our families without begging. We are unable to do the work. The destitution is created by people who don’t understand that you want to work.”

The NAC had distributed a smidgeon over R27 million in PESP funds, 11% of the total amount, by 25 February. It suspended its chief executive, Rosemary Mangope, and its chief financial officer, Clifton Changfoot, over mismanagement of the PESP just three days later – three months after the application deadline for the second stream of funding had lapsed. An investigation is pending.

The beginnings of a sit-in

Mngoma prepared herself for a morning meeting with the NAC’s acting chief executive, Julie Diphofa, on 3 March. As she made her way to Newtown, Johannesburg’s cultural hub, Mngoma expected to meet actor Thami Mbongo, author Brian Ntombela, arts administrator Yuhl Headman and maybe one or two other artists willing to face off with the organisation’s top brass. Some artists who are part of the ongoing sit-in asked not to be named, citing the risk of future reprisals and exclusion from essential arts funding opportunities. Mngoma was surprised at how many artists joined the meeting. But she did not think, walking through the lobby, that she would not leave the building for weeks to come. 

The artists were at the meeting in their personal capacities, not as representatives or leaders. But Im4TheArts, Mngoma’s advocacy group created in January 2020, was central to mobilising artists to protest and has, through its various social media channels, acted as an avenue for disseminating information about the protests’ progress and the government’s responses to the sector’s dissatisfaction.

The meeting was a follow-up in which Diphofa was meant to answer eight questions Mngoma and other creative-sector colleagues posed two days earlier. They wanted a progress report and a list of PESP funding recipients with amounts paid from both funding streams, as well as a timeline for when payments would be made to successful applicants among other queries. 

“We were here at 9am on 3 March,” says Headman. “They said they would answer our questions in a meeting with Julie. The question arose about [whether] board members [were] benefitting and she said, ‘Yes’.” Diphofa could not, however, account for who had benefitted and by how much. She left the meeting for several hours, returned and then left again, ostensibly to consult with council members. “The next thing, she was gone, not in the building anymore. We asked the security [guard] downstairs and he said she left with someone who works with her. The meeting [hadn’t] been adjourned. That’s how the sit-in started.”

The response

The Department of Sports, Arts and Culture responded to the Johannesburg protesters’ sit-in first with contrition, then with dismay. 

In an online meeting in which the minister was scheduled to address the protesters but did not attend, the department apologised for the tardiness of PESP approvals and payments as well as its lackadaisical communication on the progress of disbursements. When the minister did attend a meeting between the government department and protesters, he admitted there was a R300 million shortfall between the allocated funds (R300 million) and the amount the NAC had committed to artists – essentially, the organisation had committed itself to twice as much in payments as it had in its purse. To honour existing contracts, the department would have to fundraise within government, Mthethwa said.

Participants in the sit-in say that contracts for successful PESP applicants were sent to artists between December 2020 and January 2021. These contracts promised full payment of requested project budgets in tranches. New contracts with varying fund reductions – up to 70% of the original contracted budgets in some cases – were distributed to artists while the sit-in was under way at the beginning of March. The South African Arts & Culture Youth Forum’s attempt to interdict what it saw as a breach of contract was unsuccessful at the Johannesburg high court on 16 March on the grounds that it did not present an urgent case. The National Arts Festival recently secured a court order forcing the NAC to pay monies originally contracted for three projects with a total value of R8 million. Had this been unsuccessful, the annual festival would have seen its budget trimmed to R3.4 million.

A continuing struggle

Since the onset of the Johannesburg sit-in almost two months ago, artists have also occupied the Performing Arts Centre of the Free State in Bloemfontein and a provincial department representative’s office in Kimberley. The NAC attained a court order on 9 April granting it the legal right to remove protesters from the building should they not leave voluntarily. The protesters’ legal representative is appealing this.

“I believe that what is happening now has united creatives of this country more than anything that has been done before,” says Mngoma. “We understand what we need to do to get where we need to go, even if it means we need to sit around a table and decide that the previous model hasn’t worked. We need a new model especially because we need to have policies in place.”

15 March 2021: Yoliswa Mbobisa cleans up the third-floor reception area as artists stage a sit-in at the National Arts Council. (Photograph by John Hogg)

In 2018, South Africa’s cultural and creative industries had, by the latest available data, contributed 1.7% to the country’s gross domestic product, which translates to R74.4 billion. Between 2016 and 2018, the creative economy’s contribution to South Africa’s gross domestic product grew by 2.4% per year on average. The mostly vulnerable workers in the sector are responsible for this contribution.

The sit-ins at the NAC offices in Johannesburg, Bloemfontein and Kimberley respond directly and immediately to precarious employment in the arts sector. The continuing silence from the arts department does not. In this instance, for the good of most concerned, one hopes that the smoke does not clear until it has had its desired impact. 

31 March 2021: Artist Chantal Stanfield with slogans drawn on her mask during a protest outside the offices of the National Arts Council in Johannesburg. (Photograph by Ihsaan Haffejee)
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