Covid-19: Only 488 of more than 5,000 artists who applied for relief were paid

Only 488 of 5,000 of the artists who applied for government relief have been paid so far. Theatre directors expect to remain closed until at least 2021.
Only 488 of 5,000 of the artists who applied for government relief have been paid so far. Theatre directors expect to remain closed until at least 2021.
Image: Steve Kretzmann

It took two months before a tiny percentage of artists received any relief funding from the government.

This after losing their incomes when theatres and performance venues shut down with immediate effect from March 15.

Of more than 5,000 applications from artists seeking relief from the department of sports, arts and culture, only 488 artists have been paid out, eight weeks after Covid-19 relief funding for artists and athletes was announced.

A list of those who received money was published on the department’s website this week, GroundUp reported.

A R150m relief fund, which is to be shared by artists and athletes, was announced by the department on March 25, with criteria for applications announced on March 29. The submission deadline was initially set for April 4, but was extended to April 6 because many artists were not able to obtain the necessary documents in time.

“If we cannot provide relief to artists in a period of six weeks from the date it was announced, then there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we understand poverty,” said Market Theatre CEO Ismail Mohamed during a radio interview on May 7.

The money disbursed was capped at a maximum of R20,000 per artist or company.

The R150m set aside by the department as a “relief fund” has also been widely criticised because the money comes out of the existing budget for productions and events that were cancelled by the lockdown, rather than being additional emergency relief funding.

“The department has therefore reprioritised its budget allocation from quarter one to avail over R150m to provide the much needed relief to practitioners in the sector,” said minister Nathi Mthethwa on March 25.

In a radio broadcast interview with Eusebius McKaiser on May 7, the department’s director-general Vusumusi Mkhize said that there were 92,163 people directly employed in the arts and culture sector.

A further 335,000 people worked in support of the industry, with the creative and cultural industry supporting a further 698,000 people in ancillary services or crew. Mkhize said the sector cumulatively supports 1.1-million people.

These figures were backed up by the SA Cultural Observatory.

SA Cultural Observatory chief economist Jen Snowball said the creative economy contributed R74bn to the economy in 2018, or 1.7% of the national GDP.

Snowball said that if the multiplier effect was taken into account (including people such as an accountant working for a theatre company or catering company employed in the film industry) the sector accounted for 5.5% of GDP.

The arts and culture sector had been growing at 2.4% per year from 2016 to 2018, outstripping economic growth of 1.1%, he said.

One of the 4,512 artists who applied for relief but has not yet received anything is Cape Town film choreographer Didi Moses.

Moses said she sent the department proof of cancelled contracts, e-mail addresses and contact details of people who could verify her information, as well as her monthly expenses. It took six weeks before she got a response that her application was declined, but that she could appeal.

She said her appeal e-mail then bounced back and after much frustration she took to Twitter to try to get a response from Mthethwa. Sixty days after her initial application, she finally got the correct e-mail address to send her appeal. Two weeks later, she has still not got a response to her appeal.

Moses said she cannot pay any of her bills, including her rent, and is accumulating a mountain of debt.

Even though film companies are now allowed to work with a maximum crew of 50, it did not automatically mean there would be work for crew or actors. Moses, along with theatre producers and actors we spoke to, expect to return to any form of work only in 2021.

“Some artists I know can’t get out of bed,” she said, recounting an incident where at 2am she had to counsel a fellow artist who was considering suicide.

Meanwhile, the Theatre Benevolent Fund, established to assist aged or infirm theatre practitioners, has been doing what they can to bridge the gap. In a statement released in May, the fund said it had paid out R401,000 by way of “about 800 food vouchers” to theatre practitioners after receiving R250,000 from a private donor and R151,000 from other donors. However, the fund has had to close its relief fund and has welcomed independent auditing of its relief efforts.

While the disbursement of funds to 488 artists is welcomed, numerous questions about transparency remain, among them the tenders awarded to companies to run live streaming of artists’ work on digital platforms.

Questions sent to the ministerial spokesperson, department spokesperson, and chief director of communications and marketing on the evening of May 25, were not answered by the time of publication on Friday May 29.

 

  • Article originally published by GroundUp.

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