South Africa Is Killing Its Entertainment Industry
Still reeling from the impact of Covid, the arts sector in South Africa is being decimated by rolling electrical power cuts.
“I do not think there is a sector of the arts that is not affected. In film, your cameraman or production manager may be able to continue, but small businesses that derive their sustainability from the arts: seamstress services, catering companies, printing houses are all being affected,” Ismail Mahomed, director of the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal said.
Andre Le Roux, whose many hats include heading up Concerts SA and serving on the Board of the Market Theatre Foundation, said:
“When the economy’s not doing well, people don’t have expendable income for tickets or a drink or a meal. What’s happening with load-shedding exacerbates what happened with Covid. Covid not only wiped-out venues, but it also killed people, and it reduced the reserves. Now, on top of Covid and on top of a failing economy, we have load-shedding.”
Entertainment is not on the top of the list of expenditure priorities for people who are cash-strapped. Unlit streets and escalating crime are aggravating factors.
“In the live music scene we rely on customers who come out at night. People feel uncomfortable going out in the dark streets of Johannesburg and it affects what we can make for the night. We can’t pay the band; we can’t pay the musicians the amount of money they would have made had things been normal,” Niki of Niki’s Restaurant and Jazz Bar, said.
A WhatsApp group connects businesses in the area to a security company in Newtown. “You find that these guys know that the alarm isn’t working when there is load-shedding, so they will put up a stepladder during the day and at t 2am, when they know the alarm is not working because there’s no power, they get into the building, Niki explained.
The larger film productions have generators and some form of backup in studios, although it is sometimes interrupted, Executive Director of the Independent Producers’ Organisation (IPO), Trish Downing said.
“It is the lower budget productions, the emerging filmmakers and smaller production companies that can’t afford generators and can’t afford the fancy studios that have been really suffering,” Downing said.
Over the past few years, production companies have not only been trying to recover from Covid, but also the “absolute devastation that the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition (the dtic) has had on the industry with not paying out rebate incentive plans,” says Downing, who claims that 38% of film production companies have closed as a result of the combined impact of Covid, the delays in rebates being paid, and power outs.
“Artists need to hire venues and not all South African theatres have generators to enable a production to continue if there is load-shedding, which means that inevitably those productions have to be cancelled and independent producers have to bear the risks of that,” Mahomed said, adding that there is very little insurance for the work of the creative sector.
“When there are 15-20 people in a small music venue it looks okay but in theatres the scale of the Market Theatre, the Windybrow, or the Lab they are going to battle with audiences,” Le Roux said. He added that theatre is not a building and perhaps a new way of looking at theatre and music venues is inevitable.
The challenges for destination festivals held in small towns, like the National Arts Festival which takes place annually in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape, are exacerbated by infrastructural neglect and deterioration, which municipalities lack the resources to address.
As Mahomed points out, “Inevitably, it means that the festivals are going to be challenged with being able to attract visitors that don’t want to spend five to 10 days in a town with no water, with collapsing infrastructure, with electricity problems, and the potential of great discomfort during a festival.”
Loadshedding has also impacted on festivals traditionally held in cities where the infrastructure is more functional, like the Cape Town Jazz Festival, which took a decision to postpone this year’s festival specifically because of load-shedding.
Chief Executive Officer of the National Arts Festival, Monica Newton said: “We were the guinea pigs of load-shedding because we had our first ever Stage 6 load-shedding during the festival in 2020.”
Ticketing systems had to be re-engineered, plays moved to other venues or reconfigured to make use of natural light, times of performances were changed and sing-alongs encouraged to fill in the gaps between power cutting out and generators kicking in.
Newton considers it a remarkable feat that during the entire 11-day festival, only 13 performances had to be cancelled.
Generators are “unbelievably expensive”, Newton said, and with the higher levels of load-shedding batteries don’t have enough time to recharge.
In the case of live music events where generators are available, the noise they make is distracting, Le Roux said.
“Every time a venue closes, the ability for artists to perform is gone. And I don’t think our state realizes or, or thinks strategically enough about the role they can play to sustain our music venues, which is indirectly sustaining our artists, our audiences,” Le Roux said.
When the popular restaurant cum jazz club, Leano, closed its doors in January, primarily because of load-shedding, the loss was lamented for the nation as a whole.
Without power, clubs and restaurants can’t serve cold drinks and cook meals.
“Refrigerators consume more electricity than lights so we have had to reduce our menu and tell people that we can’t prepare certain items. Some people understand; others get tired of excuses,” Niki said.
Marlijn Ntsele – Knol, publicist and CEO of I support creative businesses said audiences are not always sympathetic. “You can prepare by looking at your load-shedding schedule in advance but when government decides at 4 o’clock that they are going to introduce Stage 5 load-shedding at 5 o’clock, you can’t even catch everything that is falling apart. Audiences take it personally when they arrive at 6 o’clock for a gig and you have to tell them it’s only starting at 8.”
Jazz in the Native Yards is a travelling jazz promoter that mostly performs in township venues in the Western Cape. “Because we are a nomadic jazz outfit, we don’t have a permanent space where we can install a generator and be secure, so we depend on the spaces where we play having their own, and often the spaces in the township are not rich enough to install generators, Koko Kalashe said.
Not knowing when load-shedding schedules may change means changing venues at short notice. “It affects musicians, it affects audiences, and it affects artists, and of course we lose revenue because of this,” Kalashe said.
The band also has to carry additional costs. “In one instance, the sound guy forgot to switch off the equipment so when the power came back on, it blew one of our speakers,” Kalashe said.
The future looks bleak but musician Sol Shibambu said: “Musicians are diehards. We have survived the hard lockdown and we are still here and we are still pushing.”
Some musicians have had to sell their instruments to survive, Shibambu said. “But even if we are not gigging, we support each other so as not to fall into depression.”
When Covid hit, the arts went digital but with the rising costs of electricity and data on top of load-shedding, how viable is this now?
“Online festivals, which were mostly safe ways of engaging with festival content because you could watch from the safety of your home, is now affected by whether you are going to have electricity or not,” Mahomed said.
“We completely adjusted festivals that I do publicity for when Covid hit. They became 50% digital,” Ntsele – Knol said
With load-shedding, she added, “We have had situations where all of a sudden your main guest sits in the dark or doesn’t turn up and says, I thought I could try and find Internet or alternative electricity somewhere but I can’t.”
For musicians, streaming digitally is not successful, according to well-known arts writer, Gwen Ansell. “Musicians who stream earn little to nothing from it,” she said.
“Unless you happen to be Taylor Swift, the revenue goes to the streaming platforms and the big-name artists,” she added.