AS is the modus operandi in South Africa, about two weeks ago the cast of Generations staged a strike in order to demand salary increases.
We have seen strikes in the mining, manufacturing, and transport industry but never in the arts and culture sector.
Generations is indisputably the longest running soapie on South African television and is considered the most popular attracting a viewership of seven million daily. It is also undoubtedly an advertisers’ dream. The show airs at 8pm everyday which is a prime time viewing slot.
According to published rate cards a 30-second advertisement slot on Generations costs R220 000 on the initial episode screening.
Clearly the soap is a cash cow for the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), not to mention royalties from foreign broadcasts. The soapie is the creation of Mfundi Vundla who is also the executive producer of the show.
I profess I was a bona fide fan of the show when it made a debut on our screens 15 years ago. The storyline centred on the Moroka family, black middle class with a foothold in the advertising industry.
Those were the days when Sello Maake kaNcube (Archie Moroka) headlined the show alongside Connie Ferguson (Karabo Moroka) and Tina Jaxa (Priscilla Mthembu). Of the original cast, Sophie Ndaba (Queen Moroka) is the only one still on the show.
When the show was first broadcast, I was enthralled that we finally had a soapie with an all-black cast with storylines that we could relate to if not aspire to.
Since then the storyline has evolved and devolved as the writers lost the plot somewhere along the line.
Nonetheless despite the thin storylines the weekly show remains immensely popular or is it simply a case of the majority of people with no access to satellite television having nothing else to watch at 8pm everyday? Nonetheless the production company MMSV and SABC did not take kindly to the strike and in an unprecedented move fired all 16 actors who reportedly earn R16 000 ($1 600) a week.
I think by any standards this cannot be considered a paltry wage. According to the South African Guild of Actors, Generations pays its actors well above the industry average. Dressed in black and white, the actors gathered in a sombre mood to address a press conference in order to highlight their grievances following what they considered unfair dismissal from the production.
John Kani, who is not a cast member, but whose son Atandwa is, balked at the R55 000 calling it “peanuts”. John Kani boasts he earned more in the ’70s.
Look not to take away from John Kani who is a experienced actor, now playwright and director. With his talent and skill I am sure he could easily command a wage in excess of R55 000, but I cannot say the same for the likes of some of the cast of Generations whose so-called acting talent leaves a lot to be desired.
I suspect some have been on that show for the past 20 years not because of loyalty and dedication, but simply because they are unable to ply their trade elsewhere.
Moreover it would not be fair to make comparisons with what American soap stars earn against South African ones. The SA Film and Television industry contributes R3,5 billion (2013, NFVF) or approximately $330 million to the country’s gross domestic product. In America the same industry contributes $504 billion (2013, USBE).
However, the entertainment industry being what it is in SA with glorified celebrities, the soapie drama elicited a lot of attention. It took the political clout of the Arts and Culture minister Nathi Mthethwa, to resolve the impasse resulting in the reinstatement of the actors.
This is the same Mthethwa wearing the hat of the Police minister that also stepped in to dissolve the Marikana wage dispute which ended up with a tally of 34 people dead.
It seems ironic that 34 people died milititating for a minimum wage of R12 000 a month and here we are with 16 actors who want to earn in excess of R55 000! One could argue that arts and mining industry are significantly different.
However, what is common to both industries is that you have the captain of the ship who inherently makes more money than the pirates who steer the ship. The SABC’s Chief Operating Officer Hlaudi Motseneng himself had a salary increase of R1,4m to R2,4m.
This was the same accusation thrown at the mining bosses at corporations like Anglo, Implats and Lonmin.
I, however, sympathise with the plight of the miners. For the cast of the Generations to say they are exploited is unwarranted. Even seasoned professionals don’t earn that much.
As far as I’m concerned; their demands are bordering on greed.
Sue Nyathi is the author of the novel The Polygamist. You can follow her on Twitter