/ 19 March 2020

Covid-19 cancellations hurt artists

Sifiso Ntuli Roving Bantu Kitchen Photo Delwyn Verasamy
Phlegmatic: Sifiso Ntuli from Roving Bantu Kitchen says we shouldn’t be reckless. (Delwyn Verasamy)

In a week that saw more of the country’s arts, sports and lifestyle events cancelled due to coronavirus-induced calls to self-isolate, some artists have hit out at what they view as the minister of sports, arts and culture’s lack of vision in offering safety nets to artists.

“I wish I could say there wasn’t enough leadership. There isn’t any,” said singer Sibongile Mngoma, a representative of the IAm4TheArts movement.

“When other ministers took the podium to give out of their plans on dealing with this disaster, the minister said he was still going to talk to stakeholders. How is that possible: that a whole minister doesn’t have a vision?” Mngoma said. “The reason the department is in the state that is in today is because of a lack of vision. He talks about sports and it’s like everything else doesn’t exist to him. How do we trust someone who responds with silence?”

After a briefing at the ministry’s headquarters in Sechaba House in Pretoria on Tuesday, Minister Nathi Mthethwa said he was still engaging role players about how artists would “continue to do what they do best without an audience”.

This announcement came as a number of South African festivals were already announcing plans to go virtual in response to the president’s call to ban all gatherings of more than a hundred people.

“Right now they are talking what they have heard others talk about regarding live streaming and virtual performances,” Mngoma said.

“Data is so expensive and people have to travel, go out and earn money to afford it. What is the plan regarding data and getting the performers to these spaces where they will record? Who is footing the travel bill? The camera crews: who is paying for that?”

Mngoma said chapter six of the Disaster Management Act provided a framework of how this situation should be dealt with, specifically in terms of reimbursing artists who found themselves out of pocket, but for that to be implemented, the department would need an extensive database, which, she said, it didn’t have.

The minister had not responded to questions relating to the exact nature of how the department planned to soften the blow dealt to the arts sector.

According to The Guardian, in Australia the arts and culture industry has called for government-funded emergency support packages in an attempt to survive the strain placed on it by the pandemic.

Germany’s Culture Minister Monika Grutters has pledged financial support to institutions and artists. “It’s clear to me that the situation is a massive burden for the cultural and creative sectors and that small institutions and freelance artists could face considerable distress … I won’t leave you in a lurch,” Grutters said.

However, back home, some people in the arts and culture fraternity felt differently to Mngoma, saying that the government could not be blamed for everything going wrong in South Africa.

Sifiso Ntuli of Brixton’s Roving Bantu Kitchen, a cultural venue whose earnings were largely from tourist traffic, said: “When I was a little boy, my late grandmother used to sing a song about ungqoqwane, the influenza pandemic of 1918. Whenever she sang that song she’d cry because she remembered the plague of 1918. This was before the planes and the internet — it wiped out a lot of people. What I’m trying to say about Covid-19 is that it’s life. We can’t afford to be reckless and we can’t blame each other for our misfortune.

“If we have been doing such a good job, the people that come here will help us survive in one form or another. Desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s about the survival of life itself.” Ntuli said the Kitchen was hoping to relaunch the venue in June by hosting a “PCP” — a post-corona party — at which they would feature some of the best artists they had ever hosted.

At the weekend, organisers of Cape Town’s Two Oceans Marathon decided to pull the plug on the event. It follows other cancelled events including the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, the 2020 Cape Epic mountain bike race, and the Afrika Burn music festival.

Some restaurants and live music venues in Cape Town have also closed shop indefinitely.

“The city’s top eight events bring in more than R3-billion rand into the city’s economy,” said Cape Town’s mayoral committee member for tourism, James Vos.

“The World Travel Market was supposed to take place next month with more than a hundred countries represented. Last year it generated $30-million in sales on the floor. Those were deals signed. So we just have to think of the economic impact of just one World Travel Market being pushed out by a year.”

Although the attention has been on the overall loss to the local economy, small businesses, vendors, and service providers have also been flung into uncertainty about the cancellation of events.

Mario “DJ Roach” Peters is a performer and technician who was contracted to provide entertainment and sound equipment to the Afrika Burn festival, which was supposed to take place at the end of April in the Tankwa Karoo.

Reeling: Mario ‘DJ Roach’ Peters is struggling to make ends meet after cancelled gigs. (David Harrison)

He’s now reeling from the loss of income from this and other gigs that have been cancelled. “I’ve had small gigs cancelled, but the one I’m most affected by is the cancellation of the Afrika Burn festival. It’s a real financial setback. I can’t do the things I need to do any more because there’s no income coming in … There’s the odd gig money. Now I’m forced to do private gigs — house parties, birthday parties — if people are even having those,” Peters said.

He said despite major events being called off, small functions — with fewer guests than the 100-person threshold — are still going ahead.

It’s these that have now become the bread and butter of the husband and father of a young child. He does this despite the risk of exposure to the Coronavirus because he needs to support his family.

Tourism authorities are also worried but remain buoyant about the state of the local service-orientated, entertainment and tourism economy. 

“We need to still ensure that money still changes hands. People need to still continue spending, especially at attractions in their own city and region. We need to remember the small vendors — even the lady selling peanuts for the squirrels in the Company Gardens, the guy who sells ice-cream — those are people who support their families through tourism,” Vos said.

“We will bounce back. Tourism as a concept has been proven to be very resilient. We’ve learnt lessons through the drought [and] through various Ebola outbreaks on other parts of the continent,” he added.