The plight of the SA soap actor


Over the last few months South Africa has watched the SABC, MMVP Productions
and 16 fired Generations cast members play out their own soap opera in the media.
Screen Africa’s Carly Barnes dug deeper into the matter to see how South Africa’s
soap actors stand alongside their international peers when it comes to pay and
working conditions.

I sense that fans, curious onlookers and people in the industry might feel as I do;
that we should pick a side. I struggle to say with confidence that either party has
me sold and instead find myself wondering if there isn’t a more universal issue at
play, one of craft versus commercialism.

Artists by nature are emotional creatures and masters of expression. They have the
ability to captivate people, which is why we fall in love with them and their work.
There are very few, however that can balance this immense creative talent with
equal amounts of business sense.

Likewise corporations like the SABC and MMVP productions juggle logistics and work
under high pressure to meet audience and advertising expectations, and deliver on
the bottom line. But at times they seem to lose sight and appreciation of the brand
ambassadors who are in many ways the essence of their product. Though the two
may seem worlds apart, they are in fact mutually dependent for their success.

If we strip the situation of all emotion, it’s pretty simple: cast members want better
rates, three-year contracts and to be paid the rights and residuals owed to them.

That seems fair. Or does it? After MMVP Productions’ Friedrich Stark revealed that
the average Generations cast member’s salary was R55 000 per month, I wondered
if the actors were being unreasonable and as he put it, suffering from “delusions of
grandeur’. So I looked at some global standards for soap stars and did a quick

According to Equity, a UK trade union for professional performers, most soapie
artists are remunerated above the minimum weekly wage, which for an actor
working on a BBC soap (EastEnders, Casualty) is £588, around R42 390 monthly.
The cast of ITV soaps earn a minimum episode fee of £400 and a daily attendance
fee of £55. If you look at their show Coronation Street, which aired 21 episodes in
September 2014, an actor which featured in 70% of the episodes that month would
have earned around R105 749 (excluding their daily fee). According to the
Australian Actors’ Television Programs Agreement, the most experienced cast
members working on soaps earn a weekly minimum of $1 026.28, which translates
to around R40 439 a month.

All regular/principal actors for the BBC and ITV are usually engaged in six- to 12-
month contracts while in Australia employment engagement normally covers a
season or is done on a yearly basis.

When shows are sold to a secondary channel or other countries, both BBC and ITV
cast share in a 17% royalty of the sales price, which is divided proportionally
between ITV cast according to their original fee and the BBC cast in proportion to
their residual basic fee (not less than 80% and not more than 100% of the total
engagement fee). If ITV programmes repeat on their main channel the cast receive
100% of their episode fee. Rights and residuals for Australian actors usually amount
to 102.5% of the negotiated fee up front (in compensation for a set number of
Australian TV runs and prepayment for some overseas TV and ancillary market
rights excluding US Network TV which is structured differently).

In light of this, perhaps demanding three year contracts is a bit unreasonable,
considering the plots for serial shows are ongoing and cast members’ screen time is
largely determined by audience favour. In comparison to international standards
(bearing in mind shows like Coronation Street have been running for 54 years while
Generations is only now entering its 20s), R55 000 is not the exorbitant salary it
may have initially seemed, but it’s not a pittance either. It seems to be in keeping
with the global average.

One thing is clear; Generations actors are not getting the transparency they deserve
from their employers. They are not being offered the correctly calculated residual
fees, which can be crucial to long term survival in an unpredictable career.

Carlynn de Waal Smit, guild secretary for the South African Guild of Actors says she
has asked the SABC to explain the calculation of residual fees and says: “Somebody
who has been there for a year is getting X while somebody who has been there for
10 years is getting Y and it’s not that much more than X. We are still awaiting that
explanation and we did question it with the relevant department in April. My
conclusion is that there isn’t enough transparency about that issue.’

Rosie Motene is an ex-Generations actress who now runs an agency for prominent
African actors – some of whom have starred in the hit soapie Tinsel. Motene warns
not to underestimate the reach of Generations and has been recognised for her role
on the show in the US as well as the UK. She says: “When I was working on
Generations, I think I had seven contracts – five of those said that for any repeat
broadcast I should get royalties and I haven’t gotten one cent. At the time we didn’t
have unity like the actors do now so when we tried to go up against SABC and the
producers it all fell apart because lawyers cost a lot of money.’

Anyone I’ve spoken to agrees that the Generations stand-off has been a long time
coming and that the very public dispute is a necessary talking point – after all,
nothing grows without challenge and if South Africa seeks to position itself as a
global competitor, these are issues that need to be acknowledged and addressed
properly, through the right channels and with as much grace and integrity as
possible. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have the SABC acknowledge its shortcomings
and follow through on making things right?

Likewise wouldn’t it be admirable to have performers voice their concerns calmly,
with restraint and without having to drudge up the legacy of apartheid? Most
importantly I think if all involved were able to mend this severance through a better
appreciation and understanding of the challenges faced by one another, they could
set an inspiring example for all South Africans.


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