SPEAK: Florence Masebe says actors tend to prefer silence when production goes awry because they fear they’ll ruin their chances of getting more work.

An important lesson in using or silencing one’s voice unfolded beautifully over the past weeks. I had been made aware of a desperate situation that threatened production on the set of Uselwa, an SABC1 drama that was being filmed in Eshowe, KwaZulu-Natal.

What sounded initially like mere teething problems of a big production on location was fast becoming a horror tale and the cast and crew were stuck in it. As the little murmurs about things not going well on that set grew rapidly into desperate cries of “we need help” and “someone needs to intervene”, it was also clear those crying out were not prepared to speak up for themselves. In fact, they were clearly afraid to do so.

A whole company of industry on-screen and off-screen professionals, some prominent award winners, were afraid to speak up on the less than professional manner in which matters were being handled on their set. My description of the situation as simply less than professional is probably too generous and one that the cast and crew will much likely disagree with.

They know just how far from the rule book the producers of that show took things.

But for weeks there was no hope of a solution to their crisis. In fact, no one knew there was anything untoward going on until the story broke and some of us took notice. By this time complaints had moved beyond concerns over unpaid per diems (daily allowances) to genuine concerns about whether any one would be getting paid for all the work done.

The bigger worry at this point was if the production would even get to completion. Goodness!

At one point a team member had an allergic reaction, was swelling up and needed immediate medical attention. Not only was there no medic on location, there was also not enough petrol in any of the vehicles to get to the nearest hospital.

Were these people out on a badly-planned friends’ vacation club getaway or were they at work? Why was it okay for things to reach such a point? What could have possibly gone wrong?

I’m being silly in asking this. Of course, such situations should never be okay. As for what went wrong? Well, I and many others in the industry are hopeful that the new chief executive and his team at the SABC will tell us sooner rather than later. There is something else that went horribly wrong and it didn’t necessarily start on this particular production.

There is an undeclared “Thou shall not speak” commandment that many of us follow religiously. Don’t speak, don’t cause trouble, don’t burn bridges.

It gets whispered to every new entrant into this industry as soon as they book their first gig by agents who sign contracts on their behalf sometimes without explaining the agreement.

I should probably add also that these agents themselves are just happy to earn commission and won’t do much to fight for them should things really go awry. I’m generalising grossly, there are a few good agents who do more. The silence rule seems to be used for technical crew too.

Now, if you had been following some of the cast on Instagram you would have seen some beautiful images from what promised to be a strong heritage piece. At no point though, did I pick up any hint of trouble from any of these posts. All seemed so well. Yet we know now it wasn’t. These committed members of the cast and crew continued to put on brave faces in the face of a most unacceptable and devastating behind the scenes drama. They would not dare speak up. They would not dare cause trouble. They would not dare burn bridges.

So, even as this story was developing and interest in it was growing, the undeclared commandment was being followed to the letter. Agents advised actors who had not been paid and had been working under what’s reported to be very questionable conditions to silence their own voices. They did not want them to ruin their chances of getting future work. Others did not need to be told this by any agent, they just chose to remain silent hoping that some intervention would just come.

Hoping that someone else, just not them, would speak up and speak for them too. We can’t blame them. It’s the way this industry has been allowed to work. It exploits our fear of never working again or for a very long time. It is this fear that makes it okay to exploit us. It is our willingness to mute ourselves when our voices are the only ones that can save us that allows the exploitation to carry on. We keep giving up our right to use our own voices even in the most desperate situations.

Ferry Jele did that for herself and her Uselwa colleagues when she defied the silence commandment and wrote an open letter that seemed to get top attention at the SABC. Will that save the production? I doubt that very much, sadly.

Ferry’s voice alone is not enough. More voices from within that cast and crew need to be raised. A unified solid industry voice is desperately needed here and in other matters.

We must accept that we don’t have this voice and that’s our biggest weakness.

There was a time when we were stronger and more unified. The likes of advocate Nakedi Ribane will tell you about that era. A time when the then Performing Arts Workers’ Equity was a force.

An industry mouthpiece that fought not just for individuals but for the greater benefit of the industry. I sometimes feel we’ve lost all the gains they made.

We can lose even more if we allow two things to continue. Firstly, our silence does not do us any favours. Secondly, remaining unorganised and not united won’t win us many battles. Judging by all these disastrous production reports our battles will still be plenty.

It’s one thing to call the broadcasters out at a time when a crisis has already begun. As I write this, the Uselwa team is still unpaid. I hope the big shots at SABC understand that this is a bread and butter issue for those men and women.

They may never go back to finish the beautiful story they started. The nation and SABC miss out on quality storytelling. I really hope that it can be rescued.

Whatever happened on Uselwa was not a first though.

People in this industry have unfortunately become used to such. It is becoming a horrible norm. Ask those that kept quiet when another SABC production, Mopani ended abruptly in Limpopo if they ever got fully paid. It is all just wrong.

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

The Sunday Independent