Using the stage to spread the important message of equality and solidarity
There is a particular freedom in being an actor. There is freedom in choosing the attributes of a character, in inhabiting the likeness of someone who is intrinsically you, but also not you. What a profound freedom it is to breathe life into an imagined alternative to our current reality, giving it a present manifestation, imbued with both conceptual relevance and emotional integrity.
Some may remember a time in South Africa when actors did not have such freedom. Performers were labelled ‘subversive’ if they dared challenge the imposed boundaries of racial discrimination that were so deeply entrenched in law, in society and the economy. Freedom, in that repressive context, was a dangerous word. But even then, defiant actors, playwrights and other creative artists refused to bow in submission to the torment of censorship, harassment and arrest. Our form of protest was to continue to do what actors do – to act; to conjure up and present an imagined alternative.
In many ways South Africa is now indeed that ‘rainbow nation’ we had envisioned. Together we have fashioned a democracy that puts human rights and civil liberty at the heart of our Constitution. But, unfortunately, we have not succeeded in all respects. In our sustained vigilance to confront racism and intolerance, the performance sector stands out as a clear example of our collective failure to spot discrimination that lies closer to home, in one of its most amorphous guises: economic prejudice.
Despite our vigilance, actors continue to be prejudiced by virtue of their status as freelancers. Actors remain unprotected by the array of Labour Laws crafted with care and ingenuity to protect ‘employees’ from unfair exploitation and abuse. (No, actors are not ‘employees’). Actors do not have the right to unionise, to engage in collective bargaining, to claim sick leave and UIF, or to refer contractual disputes to the CCMA.
Actors remain at the mercy of unscrupulous producers, some of whom even deny vehemently that sexual harassment in the workplace actually exists. Contracts - drafted in private by profit-hungry organisations that withhold overtime pay and overlook basic safety regulations on set - continue to shackle freelance actors. Without recourse to statutory protection, it seems bizarre that freelancers are themselves excluded from the drafting process. Instead, broadcast corporations and production houses proffer these “freelance contracts” with a simple injunction: ‘take it or leave it’.
Technical crew, stunt performers, background actors and support service personnel are all similarly exposed to exploitation, due to their freelance status. This is a kind of structural economic discrimination that needs to be exposed and rehabilitated.
The South African Guild of Actors (SAGA) represents actors who stand united against discrimination in all its forms. We share the vision of a non-racist South Africa, free from unfair discrimination, xenophobia, prejudice and intolerance. We are proud partners of the Anti-Racism Network of South Africa (ARNSA) and are delighted to participate in a meaningful drive such as Anti-Racism Week.
SAGA stands in solidarity with a vibrant network of concerned individuals, labour, business and civic organisations which prompts us to Unite Against Racism (#UniteAgainstRacism). We appeal to all South Africans to adopt Anti-Racism Week, which is marked from 14 to 21 March, to ensure that Human Rights Month correctly reflects the moral ideals of a proudly non-racist society. The commitment to tackling racism and all forms of discrimination is one that we all need to take seriously.
Challenging prejudice at a national scale will require closer collaborations and unrelenting vigilance across all sectors of society, including the performing arts. SAGA is bound by its mandate and a moral obligation to address economic discrimination, and proud to be working with government to devise mechanisms by which freelancers can be protected under Labour Laws. And when we are called upon to confront prejudice, exploitation and abuse, we will do what actors do - we will act decisively.
We acknowledge, as performing artists that the challenges of today require us to unite, using our various platforms to become allies of anti-racism as we pursue our agenda of activism and influence for change.
* Jack Devnarain is the Chairman at the South African Guild of Actors and a patron of the Anti-Racism Week 2020. Anti-Racism Week is observed from March 14-21 annually and is an initiative by the Anti-Racism Network South Africa.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.