It took several cancelled appointments before I could finally secure an interview with the globally renowned Cape Town Opera singer Sibongile Mngoma, who has been at the forefront of protests calling for the support of artists across South Africa.
Between rehearsals for her upcoming Christmas carol show, routine medical treatments, meetings with officials in the ministry of arts and culture, organising food parcels for starving artists, Mngoma was understandably due for some much needed downtime. Instead, she honoured her appointment for an interview with me.
It has been nearly 24 months since Mngoma has been loudly and visibly campaigning for the fair distribution of Covid-19 relief funds for artists. In fact her protest began before the hard pandemic lockdown restrictions were announced in the country in March, 2020.
On the 20th of January 2020 Mngoma created a Facebook group called Iam4theArts as a platform to organize and share information towards a class action to bring corrupt arts administrators to account.
“For me it was the helplessness of having to sit through an entire lockdown; people hiding under the lockdown to continue what they have been doing for years before Covid-19, which is not responding to emails; not answering calls. So lockdown became a shield for officials to hide under.”
The blue ticking of artists by government officials worsened during the hard lockdown period forcing Mngoma and many other artists to stage a physical sit-in at the National Arts Council (NAC) of South Africa offices, in Johannesburg.
The National Arts Council is meant to offer financial support to arts organizations and individuals involved with art and culture projects including dance, choreography, literature, multidiscipline, theatre, visual arts and crafts.
For nearly two months Mngoma others slept on the floor inside the NAC offices demanding answers on how funds from the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme geared towards assisting artists to create and retain employment during the lockdown period, had been distributed.
The funds were meant to be distributed by the National Arts Council and National Film and Video Foundation to cultural and creative workers, in an industry which accounts for 6.72 percent of all jobs in the country or just over a million jobs.
But by May 2021 only about 400 artists had received money from the presidential fund, according to governments’ own records..
With no improvements in sight, Mngoma and others took their protest to the offices of the Department of Sports Arts and Culture, and this time demanding answers and the resignation of the current cabinet minister of that department.
Mngoma was assaulted and her clothes stripped off her body by police officers who were sent to forcibly remove her from the pavement in front of the entrance department's parking lot where she spent days and nights sleeping in protest.
Recently a forensic investigation into the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme (PESP) revealed that while no funds are missing from the artists' Covid-19 relief fund, there was a lack of oversight resulting in an over-commitment of R428m — double the available funds — and a conflict of interest among some former members of the National Arts Council.
“The forensic report names five officials (responsible for the mismanagement of funds), nothing has happened to those officials since the report was released. So how does that forensic report help anyone? Other than to box-tick for the state to say we have done our due diligence. And now that we know that there’s been some mismanagement of funding, that money has not been recovered. We know that for a fact, because that’s the state of our country” she said, “there are no consequences for bad behavior.”
Despite the easing of lockdown restrictions to level one allowing artists to resume work and perform to limited audiences, Mngoma maintains that many artists haven’t recovered from the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on their livelihoods, and they are simply not coping.
“We would not have to be doing these protests and activations if people were coping, people are not coping. People have killed themselves, people have died directly because of Covid. People have lost their homes, people have had to take their children out of school. People have lost their equipment and their vehicles…. No one asks how artists pay their bills,” she concluded.
On Monday the 21st of November, Mngoma under the banner of the South African United Cultural & Creative Industries Federation - Sauccif and others met with ministry officials with a list of artists still waiting for financial support from the government.
“We finally got a chance to hold a mirror to their faces,” she said. “We were finally able to tell them that their ‘successful’ programs were not reaching struggling artists on the ground.”
Mngoma says the Arts ministry with an annual budget of over five billion rands a year, failed to think outside the box.
“I would have thought that they would have repurposed their entire budget for all artists across the country, especially since we don’t know how long this pandemic is going to last.”
Even as scientists are warning of a new deadlier variant discovered in the country, Mngoma is cautiously hopeful.
“Last year at this time we were planning shows, we spent money in rehearsals, we spent money preparing for those shows, the big ones are usually Christmas and New Year. And on the 26th the door was shut, cancelling everything from the 27th to the 4th of January,” she said.'' It robbed artists to recover during the peak holidays, when most artists make most of their income.
Even now she says artists are not operating at full capacity and are not making the incomes they would have made without Covid-restrictions.
Still months of protests and cancelled meetings with government officials have yielded results for some artists. Two days after Mngoma met with government officials, a performing artist, Tebogo Morudu posted a message of gratitude on the Iam4Arts group
“I like to thank game changers Thami Akambongo and Sibongile Mngoma, my 3rd wave relief funds came in a few minutes ago through your hard work.”