May Day! May Day! Actors lack workplace protection

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Odwa Shweni
Odwa Shweni

With Workers Day now behind us, the South African Guild of Actors asks whether performers in South Africa have anything at all to celebrate.

The recent death of an actor on a film-set in the Drakensberg has left the acting community reeling; it once again highlights the absence of statutory protections for those who work in the performance industries. Odwa Shweni, an aspirant actor with a promising future, was swept over the 40-meter high Sterkspruit waterfall at Monk’s Cowl, plunging to his death. A young widow grieves the loss of her soul mate, while two young girls have been robbed of a father’s love. SAGA has been in constant contact with the family and mobilising resources in support of Tebogo Shweni and her daughters.

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Predictably, the social-media powered rumour-mill swung into action with speculative fingers being pointed at a range of hypothetical role players. However, SAGA would not be drawn into conjecture before key facts could be established; an official inquest docket has been registered and a police investigation is currently underway. Accordingly, SAGA believes the law must be allowed to take its course.

Odwa's widow (Tebogo) at his graveside in the Eastern Cape
Odwa’s widow (Tebogo) at his graveside in the Eastern Cape

Nevertheless, and without pre-empting the outcome of official investigations, important questions must be asked and answered. SAGA’s own investigations reveal that this incident cannot be dismissed as a mere ‘accident’; it was, in our view, a foreseeable and preventable event which underscores the need for urgent and meaningful legislative reform.

A number of first-hand eyewitnesses have confided in SAGA with narrative accounts that include the events leading up to the incident, and the Guild has compiled a dossier of documentary evidence corroborating these versions. On the face of this evidence, it appears that there may be reasonable grounds for criminal prosecutions and civil claims to be instituted. Questions of direct liability aside, SAGA is distressed at the glaring shortcomings in the legislative framework that have facilitated this unnecessary sacrifice of a life.

The scene of the incident at the lip of the Sterkspruit Waterfall
The scene of the incident at the lip of the Sterkspruit Waterfall

Actors in the South African Film and Entertainment Industry are vulnerable to economic exploitation and face risks to life and limb because the laws of the country continue to fail them. The legal status of an actor is that of an ‘atypical worker’; performers are considered to be ‘independent contractors’ rather than ’employees’. For this reason, they are specifically excluded from the protections afforded other workers by the raft of labour legislation that includes the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, the Unemployment Insurance Act, the Compensation for Occupational Injuries and Diseases Act and, importantly, the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

From actors to members of the technical crew, to the legions of background artists, a significant proportion of those who work in the Film Industry in South Africa are freelancers, atypical workers and independent contractors. The promulgation of the Occupational Health and Safety Act (No. 85 of 1993) was a progressive step towards defining workplace safety as a shared responsibility. As long as actors and other freelancers are denied their right to make a meaningful contribution, they will remain at the mercy of a handful of unscrupulous producers who either pay lip-service to safety regulations or flout them altogether.

Until there is significant legislative reform, the sacrifice of Odwa Shweni will have been in vain; more names will undoubtedly join his on the South African Film Industry’s Roll of Shame.

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