Dancer Kirsty Ndawo performs The Dying Swan from the iconic ballet Swan Lake in an empty Rhumbelow Theatre as an expression of the devastation in the arts and theatre industry. The stage was lit by renowned lighting director Tina Le Roux.
Dancer Kirsty Ndawo performs The Dying Swan from the iconic ballet Swan Lake in an empty Rhumbelow Theatre as an expression of the devastation in the arts and theatre industry. The stage was lit by renowned lighting director Tina Le Roux.

Theatre industry rejects minister’s apology

By Tanya Waterworth Time of article published Jan 23, 2021

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Durban - Durban dancer Kirsty Ndawo has not worked since last March and she's desperate to get back to the stage to earn a living.

But it’s not only about money, as she explained, but also about her sense of self fulfilment as a dancer, the energy between her and the audience and being able to get up in the morning and do what she loves most. At this time in the pandemic, it has all but gone.

This week, the arts and theatre industry rejected an apology from the Minister for Sports, Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthethwa, after his tweet last Friday caused a storm in the industry.

The tweet said: “South African theatre is alive and well with performing arts institutions of the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture, @Artscape Theatre, @Market Theatre, @PACOFS3, @DurbanPlayhouse, @statetheatre and @Windybrow Theatre offering an array of indigenous drama and dance.”

It was the final straw for the industry which had abruptly ground to a halt at the start of the hard lockdown last year, picked up briefly towards the end of the year, only to shut down again as the second coronavirus wave surged in mid-December.

A petition was started this week, calling on either Mthethwa to resign or for President Cyril Ramaphosa to replace him. The Minister’s tweet was deleted.

The petition stated: “Not only is this tweet patently untrue - these theatres have generally had dark stages for months due to lockdown regulations, with some offering filmed recordings of productions. The tweet (now removed) reflects how ignorant the Minister is of the theatre landscape in the country and underscores his lack of understanding of and empathy with the enormous losses within the arts sector over the last ten months.”

On Thursday, Mthethwa apologised for the tweet through his media spokesperson, Masechaba Khumalo, offering his “heartfelt remorse” to the arts industry who were “among the most brutally impacted by this devastating pandemic”. He promised his department was “fast tracking a third phase of relief funding for the industry - to continue all efforts to aid the plight of artists affected by this pandemic that is taking lives and livelihoods”.

But the industry and petitioners were having none of it.

A leading figure in the KZN arts and theatre world and one of the signatories of the petition, Ismael Mohamed, said their call for the Minister to leave was not based solely on his tweet.

“The minister's tweet was really minor, but underlines the incompetence and maladministration of his department. There is a lack of compassion about the turmoil in the sector, most of whom have not earned anything in the last ten months,” he said, adding another relief payment was not going to fix the state of the industry.

“A third payment is a short term solution. The minister cannot just keep giving grants. There needs to be a vision and strategy to rebuild the industry post-Covid. What kind of advisory incompetence does he have in his department, what is his DG (director general) informing him? There is a complete disconnect.”

Another petitioner, Cape Town playwright Mike van Graan, said despite Mthethwa’s apology on Thursday, the petition would continue in an effort for him to resign or be replaced.

“His apology is not going to relieve the pressure to resign. It's not about the tweet, but rather the affirmation of his ignorance of the industry. The five theatres which the government does support have gone online, which also shows a lack of understanding of what pressures the industry is facing.”

He added grant relief was not viable because “there's not enough money in the fiscus for everybody”, and the first two relief payments had only covered a small percentage of the industry which has a large number of freelancers.

“There were a lot of bureaucratic hoops to jump through and many more people were declined than those who received payments,” he said.

And as dancer, Ndawo faces another month ahead without employment. She also rejected the Minister’s apology.

“The last year as a dancer has been absolutely stagnant. I've not worked since last March and I'm dying. I have trained as a dancer and I love the fact that I get to do what I love.

“Live theatre is all about the energy between the performer and the audience, with the audience going with you on a journey. The energy of a show is the commodity.

“I received a first payment, which took three to four months of applications, but not the second. I was one of the lucky few, a lot of my companions have not had anything at all.

“Thank God for the Minister's comment. We can now push forward for change,” she said.

Meanwhile, a veteran in Durban's theatre industry, The Rhumbelow Theatre's Roland Stansell, said the theatre was classed as a supper venue and so could remain open, but had closed the restaurant until the end of February because of the alcohol ban.

Independent on Saturday

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