Theatre industry on impact of Covid-19 pandemic on theatre sector

NCOP Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture

20 October 2020
Chairperson: Mr E Nchabeleng (ANC, Limpopo)
Share this page:

Meeting Summary

Video: Select Committee on Education and Technology, Sport, Arts and Culture (NA) 20 Oct 2020

The Select Committee was briefed by the theatre industry in a virtual meeting on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the performing arts sector.

Representatives from various disciplines in the sector – producers, actors, dancers, educators and theatre managers – provided an insight into the contribution it made to the country’s social, cultural and economic environment, and the current situation in the theatre industry. They highlighted the fact that it had been the most seriously affected by the lockdown regulations, as it relied on audiences to support their productions. They criticised the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture for its lack of support for artists who had lost their livelihoods, and for its poor communication with the sector. It also levelled accusations of corruption involving the disbursement of artists’ relief funding.

The Department responded to issues raised in the meeting, and said it was committed to supporting a sector which made a valuable contribution to the economy.

Meeting report

Chairperson’s opening remarks

The Chairperson said the Committee would be briefed on the impact the lockdown had had on the theatre industry, and would have the opportunity of engaging with representatives of the arts fraternity. This sector had been affected the most by the lockdown due to the artists’ dependence on audiences to attend their productions. The Committee needed to know how the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture (DSAC) had helped the people in this sector during this difficult time, and how countries similar to South Africa had survived.

Theatre industry presentation

Mr Jaco van Rensburg, Executive Producer: VR Theatrical, gave the Committee an overview of what the presentation would consist of, and who would be presenting each section.

Contribution of theatre and dance to human development

Ms Yvette Hardie, National Director: International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People (ASSITEJ), expressed her belief that the arts were very important to human rights, and were needed to celebrate cultural identities, world views, express cultural diversities, grow empathy and build solidarity in South Africa. It had become evident that under challenges such as Covid-19, the arts were what the people reached out to in order to maintain their mental health and well-being. The arts were vital to peoples’ development as human beings and their capacity to learn, contributing to skills such as creativity, communication, collaboration and the critical thinking which were needed in the 21st century. If the arts were prioritised in schools, the learning platform would be transformed, with teachers being equipped to teach, which meant that learning would be enhanced and all aspects of child development would improve. From her standpoint, the contribution of the performing arts was important to human development.


Contribution to social development

Mr Gregory Maqoma, Chairperson: Sustaining Theatre and Dance (STAND) Foundation, focused on social development, and said theatre and dance offered engaging, accessible and production interventions to address social ills, and helped disadvantaged communities and societies. Growing up in a disadvantaged community of Soweto, he used dance to overcome social problems. Theatre and dance was used successfully for any agendas which were used in programmes involving sex workers or women that were abused. It had the ability to educate, inspire, provide hope for the future and change behaviour. Dance also built consensus in societies of diverse groupings. It was used as a tool to overcome struggles, and had been used to speak out against apartheid and acts of xenophobia. Dance and theatre was used to educate and uplift a broader society that was very strong in South Africa, which was considered a world leader in applied theatre.

Economic contribution

Ms Hardie said that theatre made an important contribution to the economy, and that there was a huge potential for growth in the arts industry, which was shown through the growth rate of 3.4% between 2016 and 2018. These statistics did not include the informal sector, which was a huge part of the performing arts. This sector was large and vulnerable, with 46% of people in cultural occupations being in the informal sector in 2017. In the South African Cultural Observatory (SACO) Covid-19 impact report, it had been indicated that the performing arts sector was most vulnerable. As a result of the lockdown, it was a sector under a lot of financial pressure.

Contribution to “Brand South Africa”

Mr Maqoma regarded theatre and dance as providing a gateway into the diverse cultures of a country, while also promoting the most innovative and expressive ways of thinking and being. Festivals and cultural events contributed to a sustainable and dynamic tourism industry. Cultural and heritage sites, inner cities and rural areas were enriched through theatre and dance. Touring productions promoted cultural curiosity and understanding. It also demonstrated artistic excellence and unique perspectives, values and traditions that challenge globalisation. Artists and companies act as global ambassadors of a diverse, free, dynamic and democratic South Africa. Its performance art was valued globally and was a key contributor to strengthening relationships between countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS). Although the pandemic had stopped all activity, the industry was still able to engage digitally, which promoted potential branding.

How sector is organised

Mr Ismail Mahomed, Director: Centre for Creative Arts, University of KwaZulu-Natal, gave a brief introduction on theatrical performance organisation, from a small scale to a large scale, providing a description of key sub-sectors in the performing arts sector and how each one functioned. He asserted that the DSAC was incompetent, and that there was corruption within its structures. He described the impact of Covid-19 on each sector, and the initiatives generated by each sector to support themselves.

Creative industries -- the big picture

Mr Karabo Kgokong, Theatre Producer and Chairperson: Im4theArts, gave a brief introduction of himself and the organisations he represented. The underlying issue the sector faced was that the DSAC did not listen to it. Many artists had organised protests against the DSAC, which indicated the frustrations of the sector against Department and the Artist Relief Fund (ARF). He pleaded with the DSAC to assist artists who were suffering, and urged the Committee to become more involved before more protests were organised.

Mr Daniel Galloway, former Managing Director: Fugard Theatre, gave a brief introduction of the Fugard Theatre, which was fully independent and received no subsidy from the government. He had helped the Fugard Theatre to develop strategies to respond to the pandemic. The independent theatre had no committees to answer to, which created autonomy -- the creativity which leads to job creation.

As a result of the lockdown and not receiving any form of help, the Fugard Theatre had sadly had to close, resulting in a number of people losing their jobs. Independent theatres could not trade meaningfully and function under full capacity due to the lockdown regulations. Without financial support and revised restriction protocols, many independent theatres would have to close down. 

Impact of producers

Mr Van Rensburg outlined the contributions of independent producers to the theatre sector. The dance and theatre sector was made up of a complex network of contributors who depended on each other to exist. It relied on independent producers to provide venues with a wide range of content. Independent producers were key contributors to job creation for the entire associated value chain, which had been left vulnerable at the beginning of lockdown, with no source of income. There was also no current regulatory framework in place to protect vulnerable freelancers and independent production houses.

He said that the per-project approach -- which gave project-based funding -- was irrelevant and not a sustainable source of funding, and the DSAC had to come up with new ways to help independent producers in the future. State funded theatres, VR Theatres, and a number of independent producers had never received any support, which was a problem that needed to be addressed.

Case study: VR Theatrical

Mr Van Rensburg took the Committee through what his organisation had achieved since its establishment in 2016. VR Theatrical had produced more than 26 productions in different venues, employing on average 150 independent contractors a year, and achieving a turnover of R5 million in 2019. It had scheduled 12 productions for 2020, which had to be canceled due to the lockdown. For eight months the theatres had had no source of income.

VR Theatrical had been allocated R20 000 in April of 2020, which unfortunately was not enough to sustain the company. He requested that the Committee improve the stimulus package in order to inject cash where there was job creation.

Arts festivals

Mr Mahomed outlined the nature and impact of arts festivals, the online presentation of arts festivals, and the benefits and challenges of the online presentations. He drew the attention of the Committee to the Arts Festival of Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), which contributed R98 million to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the town, and R360 million to the GDP of the Eastern Cape province.

Since 1994, more arts festivals had developed with the continued support of corporates and ABSA Bank, and these festivals had created a lot of jobs. Due to lockdown, the arts festivals had been performed on an online platform, and as a result of their cancellation, not only have artists lost their jobs, but towns had lost a huge amount of their GDP. This was felt by a town like Makhanda, which has an unemployment rate of 63%.

The festivals had responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by going online, which created an economic opportunity for artists. However, the financial returns from online festivals were negative. There was also no support given to the festivals from the Artist Relief Fund (ARF). He asked the Select Committee to note that the online presentations of arts festivals were not sustainable. The growing of audiences, the generation of content and the advancement of online festivals in the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) must be an important part in the economic recovery strategy for the sector, and this strategy could not be developed by government officials only -- experts in the arts sector had to be consulted.

He also asked the Committee note the growing distrust between the DSAC and the sector because of poor communication, poor administration and a lack of accountability on the part of several of the DSAC officials. During level four of the lockdown, government officials had been paid to work from home, but the DSAC had insisted that all grant contracts must have documents physically signed by beneficiaries and delivered to DSAC offices, refusing any electronic copies. This was an example of the Department’s lack of competence.

Lastly, he wanted the Committee to note the economic and social contributions of arts festivals.

Professional theatres on university campuses

Ms Lara Foot-Newton, Chief Executive Officer (CEO): the Baxter Theatre, said she fully agreed with all the inputs presented by the speakers so far. In her section of the presentation, she would be discussing what could be a solution to some of the issues which had been raised by creating a space for artists, and having theatres which were supported by the universities.

She gave the Committee a brief introduction into the Baxter Theatre and all university theatres. Campus theatres created employment for alumni, graduates, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), non-profit organisations and other teaching organisations. Campus theatres contributed to new content, growing audiences and the intellectualism of the arts, and to creative movements such as decolonisation, fighting against gender-based violence (GBV), Fees Must Fall (FMF) and Black Lives Matter (BLM).

She requested that the Committee include these theatres in the Economic Recovery Strategy (ERS) because due to the lockdown, the Baxter Theatre had struggled to pay the salaries of its employees. The Baxter had applied for funding in April but had been denied by the DSAC. Under lockdown regulations the Theatre could not open under full capacity. University theatres were the way forward for hosting young companies.

She asked the Committee to provide the artists with an audit regarding the Covid-19 relief funding for artists, because they were concerned as to where the funds had been allocated. 

The dance sector

Mr Maqoma discussed the value, impact and importance of the dance sector. He said that while in lockdown, dance had the ability to heal and unite people around the world, and requested that the DSAC rethink and come up with a better economic model to sustain dancers. The dance sector found themselves at the bottom of the DSAC agenda and was always marginalised, which was very disappointing considering that the sector was doing so well.

There was a lack of government support for dance festivals, and international donors were asking what the country was doing for the arts, and the answer was often “nothing.” International contributions had kept the arts alive and created jobs, but the closing of borders due to Covid-19 had put a stop to these contributions. The South African government should note the economic contributions of the dance sector. He asked the Committee to note the collapse of the dance umbrella in the dance sector due to a lack of funding, and said he wanted the dance festivals to be part of the economic recovery strategy.

Café and dinner theatres

Ms Petronel Baard, Founder of TEO Theatre, said café and dinner theatres created entrepreneurship and contributed to community development, especially now that there was a ban of large gatherings, and was an opportunity for community engagement and for uplifting artists and technicians. She briefed the Committee of the effects of Covid-19 on this form of entrepreneurship.

Role of community-based organisations 

Mr Mahomed gave the Committee a brief introduction into the importance of the community arts practice and centres (CAPC), which had been part of the industry for over 26 years. CAPC was very important for community development, as it tackled issues of drugs, gender and teenage pregnancies. After 1994, the DSAC had created policies around the CAPC, but they were yet to see these policies implemented. It had operated efficiently and had been part of the culture of South Africa, but had been forced to close down due to a lack of funding, which showed the incompetence of the DSAC. He asked that the Committee to ensure that the Department delivered to the community workers of CAPC, and wanted it to implement the policies it had created.

Road to recovery -- a new future

Ms Hardie referred to the challenges the new South Africa was facing, such as inequality relating to incomes, infrastructure and skills across all platforms. One could not have a one-size-fits-all approach, but that was the approach which was being taken to tackle key issues. The policy the sector was based on had been developed by the “global north,” which excluded the majority. There was a need to change the infrastructure and to implement flagship training centres in each province. She asked that the DSAC implement what had been stated in the White Paper, and that consideration be given to education and training at ground level. This was the vision of the sector.

Mr Mahomed commended the DSAC for including what he had suggested in the White Paper, but stressed that its implementation would be a long process and that the sector respected that process. There were two components to the White Paper. Firstly, the legislative framework required changes to the Cultural Institutions Act (CIA), and the Department need to be smart about the practical implementation of the White Paper.

Communication challenge

Ms Lizani Smith, an active arts pacifist, gave the Committee a brief background of herself, and said there had been poor communication between the DSAC and artists. An example of this was that artists did not even know that there was an Artists Relief Fund (ARF). Therefore she had been engaging with artists via online platforms to get their input on a way forward, and to update them on any developments from the DSAC. To close this gap, she and her organisation had been communicating with DSAC directly and conveying messages to artists. The first encounter with the DSAC had been a success, but as time went by, this engagement had become more difficult for them to convey their recommendations to the Department. There had been three meetings with the DSAC for the entire year so far, and they had requested it to consult the organisation regarding any forms of relief in future.

Mr Van Rensburg thanked the Committee for receiving their presentation, and asked if the sector could submit their recommendations in writing to save time.

The Chairperson agreed that the sector could submit their recommendations in writing.


The Chairperson said this meeting was long overdue for discussing the plans for the future. The Select Committee looked at what was happening in the provinces and how artists were affected by issues. He pointed out that government officials had an obligation to offer a support system for local artists because the sector had been contributing to the economy, as well as to nation building and promoting South Africa on the international stage.

Ms M Gillion (ANC, Western Cape) indicated that as a result of Covid-19, inequalities had been highlighted in the society of South Africa and throughout each sector. At the last meeting she had attended with the Minister and Deputy Minister, she had asked the DSAC what it was doing to help the artists at ground level. It had been outlined that the theatre industry, along with the DSAC, was essential to nation building and social cohesion, and she expresses her deep disappointment regarding how the Department was treating this sector, especially with this sector contributing 1.7% of the country’s GDP, and 7% of the country’s work-force coming from this sector.

She said the Committee needed to recognise that from a financial point of view, the country was under a lot of pressure, and they could not disregard a sector which was contributing so much to the wealth of the country. There was a lack of communication between DSAC and this sector, which needed to be looked at. She had been disturbed to find out that members of this sector had had to risk their health in order to deliver documents for financial relief to the DSAC while under the lockdown regulations. She asked the DSAC to respond to the allegations made against it in writing.

Ms D Christians (DA, Northern Cape) acknowledged that her knowledge of the arts industry was very limited, but now she and the Committee had a better understanding of what was happening in the sector. She was concerned that it was on the brink of collapse, and if this happened, there were a number of other programmes which would fail, and peoples’ livelihoods and their education and degrees would fall by the wayside. It was disappointing that the Minister could not join in, but she requested the Committee to conduct a follow up meeting which would include the Minister, because the issues raised today were very concerning.

What had stood out for her was Mr Kgokong saying that the cries of the sector were not being heard. She asked the DSAC what the reasons for its lack of communication with the stakeholders in this sector were. It seemed that the sector had tried on numerous occasions to reach out to the Department, but it had failed to respond. She requested, on the behalf of the Select Committee, that the Chairperson write a letter to the Minister requiring the DSAC to present a strategic plan to it, going forward. The Department should also present an audit of the Covid-19 Relief Fund to the Committee, which was important in response to the allegations made against the DSAC.

It would be a good idea if Mr Van Rensburg submitted the recommendations of the sector so that the Committee could pursue a discussion and map a way forward. Lastly, she asked the DSAC what plan it had to save the livelihoods of artists. Regarding the allegations made against the Department, she requested that Mr Mahomed put any tender irregularities on paper, and wanted the Committee to pose written questions to the members who had presented.

Mr M Bara (DA, Gauteng) said Mr Mahomed and Mr Kgokong had made very serious allegations against the DSAC. What was the Department doing to provide artists with personal protective equipment (PPE)? He wanted it to compensate artists who were going to perform in productions which had been canceled due to the lockdown. The Committee had been receiving reports from the DSAC that a lot had been done, but the presenters had indicated that it had not done anything to help those in the sector. It could not pick who to assist in the industry -- it had to help everyone in need. Therefore it was important to know what the DSAC had done

The Chairperson said it would be a good idea to have a joint meeting with all parties concerned to discuss the issues raised in this meeting, which showed that the Committee had taken the engagement today very seriously. He had never realised that the situation in this sector was so bad.

Ms Gillion responded to the allegations against DSAC by saying that she had noticed that while representing the Western Cape (WC) in the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), presentations had been made by this sector. What concerned her was that R20 000 had been promised by the Minister, but it was reported that the members of the sector had received only R10 000. She requested that if the meeting was adjourned and the DSAC could not respond to the allegations, it should respond by drawing up a memorandum in which they provide answers, and present it to the Select Committee.

The Chairperson said that the questions of the Members were similar to his, and that the promises made by the DSAC to help theatres were included in the budget, but these plans had not been implemented. He also wanted the Committee and the NCOP to engage with the provincial departments so that mistakes did not repeat themselves.

Ms Foot-Newton said she felt that the governing body that represented the sector was a smokescreen between leaders in the arts community and the DSAC, which involved money and was not right. The real leaders of the arts were not getting a chance to address Parliament because only the governing body and the DSAC communicated with each other. Today had been the first opportunity the sector had been granted to address Parliament. There had been many irregularities regarding state-funded theatres presenting no work, yet salaries were being paid, wasting millions. Secondly, the Theatre Dance Employee Association had met with the Director General (DG) of the DSAC twice. The DG had requested that they find two representatives from the arts in each province to speak on the behalf of the employers of artists, and to come back with statistics and graphs. They had done this, but had waited for three months for the next meeting

The Chairperson stopped Ms Foot-Newton due to time constraints to allow the DG to respond to the allegations made today, and to plan a way forward.

DSAC’s response

Mr Vusumuzi Mkhize, DG: DSAC, referred to the issue of state theatres, where Mr Mahomed had claimed that since 1994 nothing had been built. He responded that there had been a theatre built in the Northern Cape. Regarding theatres in the Limpopo province, the DSAC had urged the province to make funds available in order to help these theatres, but the challenges had been around land ownership, not because there was no money allocated.

Regarding members in the arts community who had had to hand deliver documents to the Department, he said that the documents for the relief fund were scanned and forwarded electronically, and he would investigate which members had been forced to hand deliver documents to the DSAC. He wanted to know who Mr Mahomed had been referring to, because exposing someone during the peak of the pandemic was putting lives at risk.

Mr Mkhize said Mr Mahomed had alleged that private companies such as ABSA Bank were funding festivals, and not the DSAC. He responded that these festivals, and the recent online festivals were funded by the Department, and suggested that Mr Mahomed was smartly using a festival sponsored by Standard Bank alone to damage the reputation of the DSAC. He named a few festivals that the DSAC funded, and said it still compensated for the festivals and engaged with organisers to compensate those artists who were scheduled to perform. The Committee would be presented with a background to an organisation had been created because the artists agreed with the former President that there must be a body which communicated with the DSAC on behalf of the sector.

Responding on the lack of communication, he said that after the announcement of the lockdown, the Minister had held a meeting with representatives of the sector. One of the Members had noted that there had been meetings between the DSAC and the sector on a way forward, but it was impractical to consider all the ideas and one had to be pragmatic about this. When talking about planning, the DSAC could not come up with a plan before the pandemic because it did not know what it was facing.

With the help of the Minister, the DSAC had had to make adjustments to the budget, and had been advised by the Minister to take all the funding allocated for the first quarter of the financial year and put it into a basket to assist the sector. The Minister had highlighted that this sector would suffer the most under the lockdown regulations.

The Department had briefed the Sector twice regarding the stimulus package, and would brief the Committee on what it had done. He responded to the issues relating to the Covid-19 Relief Fund by requesting that everyone one present visit the Auditor General’s (AG’s) website. The DSAC was on that website and the findings would be made public, because the DSAC had nothing to hide. If they were aware of any corruption in the Industry, they should report it. The DG had not received any complaints about corruption, although there was one incident regarding corruption where the people had been scared to come forward and name those who were accused, and had indicated people might be victimised. Therefore he had been unable to deal with corruption due to people with information being fearful. He urged that people come forward, because corruption was a type of cancer which South Africa was fighting. There had been positive contributions from the team who had presented some constructive criticism, and the DSAC would take into consideration what had been suggested.

Mr Mkhize said the White Paper had received the approval of Parliament only last year, and before they could continue with the rollout, the Minister had been consulted. The DSAC had a team working on the short, medium and long term strategies to implement the White Paper, because the revised White Paper was dealing with grants which would be distributed in the sector. The rollout could not just be done by the DSAC -- the sector also had to give input because the aims of the White Paper must benefit the sector.

When Members talk about regulations, they are aware that the Copyright Amendment Bill (CRAB) and Performance Protection Bill (PPB) would liberate the creatives of the arts sector. The Bills’ objectives, which were at the core of how the sector was functioning, would stop any exploitation of artists, and once the White Paper was finalised it would regulate the sector, creating a space for artists to flourish. It was important for this sector to have a regulated environment, because it contributes to 1.7% of the GDP of South Africa.

The DG acknowledged that there were problems in this sector, and that DSAC must help because the objective of Department was to service it. The DSAC would continue to build a relationship with everyone in the sector 

The meeting was adjourned 



Download as PDF

You can download this page as a PDF using your browser's print functionality. Click on the "Print" button below and select the "PDF" option under destinations/printers.

See detailed instructions for your browser here.

Share this page: