In the 80’s my high school took us, our drama group, to Johannesburg. We did a lot of things but one thing I remember clearly; was when we were taken on a tour of The Market Theatre. We were a group of not more than twenty students but we couldn’t keep quiet from the excitement. They told us to wait in the foyer and someone would come for us. After what seemed like forever- well, it was a few minutes actually- a lady wearing a grey slacks suit with a white thin stripe shirt walked towards us. She looked so elegant, so important and very beautiful. She smiled and said, “Hello everyone! My name is Nandi Nyembe and I will be showing you around The Market Theatre.”

Although I was taking in what she was saying, I can’t even remember half of the things she said. As I stood there looking at how she gestured, her lit up face full of expression and how excited she got when she spoke about actors, plays and the history of the Market, I knew at that very moment that my life would never be the same again.

And it is now that one gets to appreciate the great work that our legends have paved for us. There are so many actors just like Mama Nandi that got into acting despite the difficulties and challenges that came with it. The list of the amazing actors I’ve learnt from and drank from their well of wisdom is endless.

Many years later, actors are fighting for their rights. Their right to work, the right to earn; their right to basic benefits that ‘normal’ employed people get. Our field is not even recognized as a ‘normal’ field. You can work today and be unemployed tomorrow.

Celebrating actors is not just walking the red carpet in a loaned dress and shoes you have to pay for if they get scratched. It is more than the batting of fake eyelashes to the clicking and flashing of cameras. It’s more than a night out with poses in front of a sponsor’s backdrop.

A celebration of actors is acknowledging their works, knowing their worth, and paying them good money for services rendered. Giving actors a runaround for what is rightfully theirs is completely disrespectful. You can never say you celebrate someone while you’re okay with stealing from them. Actors’ rights are daily violated by those who should be protecting them. If it’s not sexual advances, it’s emotional blackmail and stolen royalties. You can’t even negotiate your fee fairly without being threatened that there’s always a younger version of you waiting in the wings to do what you can do at a lesser fee. With the power and the glory that comes with social media, we find many of our own jobless and redundant because they lack pizzazz and can’t attract a crowd. Our works and abilities are measured by our social media popularity. It is no longer about your talent and skill, it’s all about instant fame, trends and impressions.

We have a whole department of Arts and Culture that is most visible when one of us dies. Artists, together and individually, go knocking at the department’s doors and most of the time our cries and pleas go unanswered. How then do we expect our viewers/fans to celebrate us properly if the very system that can put a lot in place fails to recognize us? In fact it’s the fans that keep us together; they remind us why we do what we do. They push and encourage us with well wishes.

A few award ceremonies that we have don’t even cover the vastness of our industry. We need more than the awards, we need younger generations who want to be in the arts to be encouraged and we can only do that if the arts are given a chance. I’m a FUBA student and there was FUNDA and many Black art institutions that opened doors for us. We need more of those and the department of Arts and Culture can make that happen. Being buried in The Heroes Acre with my sponsored tombstone is beautiful but it is not everything. Having streets named after us is a great honor but I know many legends who die bitter and sad that the Arts that they’ve given so much to has been unkind to them. So the answer is a simple no. Actors are not celebrated enough in South Africa. And that’s okay, we are artists first and ‘celebrities’ after. We want to be seen, to be heard, be treated with dignity and respect. We’re not just the ‘entertainment’ that can be easily disposed of; we are just mere mortals who breathe and have the right to live just like anybody else, except the spotlight is on us.

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