Women attend a protest as a part of the #MeToo movement on International Women's Day. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
I sat in my favourite corner of the couch one Saturday night in March to watch the South African Film and Television Awards (Saftas) on SABC2. This was almost the highlight of my weekend, I must confess, rivalled only by the cousin’s birthday event that I attended that Sunday. Now that made my day. I shouldn’t digress.

My television highlight was the Saftas which I enjoyed despite the occasional booboo. I always get nervous on behalf of the people responsible for such big live broadcasts. The annual main event of the country’s film and television industry is always going to be judged harshly for even the slightest mistake, because we assume that at this level the audience is dealing with the best of the best.

I cringed several times while watching the live show and then I turned on my imaginary “ignore the mishaps” button. That might explain why I almost missed the part where the wrong nominees’ names were called out or where the picture on the screen did not correspond with the winner at the podium. Sadly, this button could not save me from hearing one of the hosts referring to an all-time best actress, Connie Chiume, as Connie Chuene. I had a hard time forgiving her for that but that’s okay. It was the nerves, I guess.

I’ll tell you what’s not okay, though. The fact that year after year, hard-working men and women in television and film gather for a weekend of total glitz glamour to celebrate and temporarily forget that the reality for almost all those winners is far from the put-on glory of awards night.

It’s a night in which all industry woes get locked up at the back of the house, so that we can all dance together and pretend that none of us are panicking about whether a contract will get renewed or not. Some have to smile through the red-carpet moments and applaud each other while on the inside they are suppressing the anxiety of having to look for new work.

I remember one year at these awards where I just looked across the room at all these beautiful people while thinking, “wow, so many out-of-work talented people”. That was years ago. Now the invitation criteria have become even more ruthless.

We seem to be following an “out of work out of VIP list” rule. We also have that elephant in the auditorium nobody seems to want to handle. The Saftas continue to be boycotted by some prominent productions who feel the judging has been biased against them in previous years. So, sadly, some hard-working industry names in front and behind the camera miss out on the accolades. I don’t think that’s okay.

Let me tell you what else is seriously not okay. The fact that the Swift (Sisters Working In Film and Television) anti-sexual harassment pledge was not treated in a more punchy manner. The audience mumbled their way through it like children forced to say grace before snack time. That was not really shocking, though, as sexual harassment is an issue we tend to treat very casually in this industry. Rife as it may be, we continue to deal with the subject as a regular joke.

Something we giggle about in the wings yet never bring out in the spotlight. It was also not surprising, although quite annoying, that the writers for that show felt it okay to let the host make a “casting couch” joke at a time when the women in this industry are grappling with the seriousness of this issue. That’s not okay.

While the #MeToo movement is gaining rapid momentum globally we in South Africa cannot be found to be still adopting a wishy-washy approach to sexual harassment.

It needs to come out in the open, but until we stop making weak jokes about casting couches and any other pieces of furniture where such violation may happen, the victims of the many known sex pests in this industry will not feel empowered to speak up. I cringed and simultaneously got angry as that unfunny couch joke fell flat at the Saftas.

It was as violent as the system that continues to protect industry perverts while rewarding them with more contacts so they can keep their chain of abuse moving. We need to erase the tag “casting couch” if we want to get serious about tackling sexual harassment in the entertainment industry as a whole. While the reference is purely metaphorical, a couch is a comfortable space in contrast with the violation that happens when one is forced to endure unwanted sexual advances in order to get a big break that may never come.

We need to adopt serious language in dealing with this scourge. We need to stop whispering about it and bring it out to the centre of our discussions in this industry. We need to stop laughing at the jokes each time a not-so-talented actor appears on our screens. It has become so acceptable to assume and then declare that if an actor is pretty, yet quite obviously lacking in talent, then they must have gone to the film set via the proverbial casting couch.

This approach takes away the negative role of sex pests who use their power to take advantage of young people aspiring to get their name on a credit roll and finally make the “big time”. The pests, who are not necessarily always men, know that they can use their power, real or perceived, to get their victims to do as they demand because they are blinded by the opportunity to finally get on the other side of the bright lights.

I think we’ve been handling this all wrong. We’ve assumed that warning young women to look out for these predators would be enough to handle the problem.

We mistakenly assume that the predator will not use the victim’s hunger to make it big to their advantage and to keep them in rubbish sick cycle with threats of ending their careers, that they won’t warn the same victim against us and point out that we are washed out and jealous and do not want to see the young ones prospering.

We have made the mistake of believing that our very good friends and respected industry giants can’t possibly be the ones guilty of such misconduct. We have, for far too long, wrongly assumed that only the on-screen talent gets lured into this predatory snare. We have not stopped to see the famous star that preys on extras. We look away as the same extras get inappropriate attention from the crew.

We mind our own business and do nothing when young wardrobe assistants mention that they got groped by a lead actor during costume checks. We repeat grapevine stories of how a certain famous director holds special hotel auditions for pretty young ladies who never even make it to the cast list. We’ll ask in unison why they went to audition in hotels instead of the normal route.

We are well-trained in blaming the victims and slut-shaming them instead of calling out the pests. We’ll continue to ignore the running jokes about producers who cast “slay queens” via Instagram. We laugh and blame the wrong party. We need to check our own complicity in the matter.

The industry sex pests are laughing with us as others get called out. They feign shock that such things are happening while they are the kingpins of the sleaze.

The other big mistake we keep making is to think that the young men in the industry are not being preyed on by sex pests. Taking a pledge against sexual harassment is not enough, but it surely is a great start. Let’s follow this with action and an attitude of zero tolerance even when the people accused are our very best friends.

* Masebe is an award-winning actor, a creator and producer of film and television content. She is the author of The Heart Knows.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.