South African soap stars fight for better pay


It’s a labour dispute worthy of a soap opera, but now the cast of South Africa’s most successful soapie is entering a new phase in their fight for better pay.

In August 2014, all 16 cast members of Generations were fired by series creator and executive producer Mfundi Vundla for going on strike.

This week, a new soap opera – Ashes to Ashes – was launched on South Africa’s leading commercial TV station, eTV, featuring four of the ‘Generations 16’.

The actors had been asking to be paid syndication earnings and royalties, and they also wanted secure contracts.

But Vundla blasted the actors for being “unreasonable”, describing members of the cast as some of South Africa’s highest-paid actors and depicting them as spoilt.

The actors disagreed, however, painting a picture of insecurity and exploitation.

Sophie Ndaba, who had played the character of Queen Moroka on Generations for 21 years told journalists back in August that she had been working on annual contracts and that some of her co-stars, “wake up every day thinking all I have is Generations.”

Many soap actors in South Africa have to rely on additional work, such as voiceovers or running their own businesses, in order to live comfortably.

The revered South African actor and playwright John Kani, whose son Atandwa was one of the fired cast members, accused the show’s producers of perpetuating “an apartheid-style master, servant relationship”.

He also told the South African Press Agency that the actors were not employed but rather engaged with on a contractual basis.

“If we are in a contractual relationship and that contract is terminated, an engagement needs to take place,” he said, calling on the country’s trade unions to “show our teeth and stand up. We need a plan of action.”

The actors had been negotiating with Vundla’s production company MMSV and the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) since October 2013, but after negotiations stalled last August, the actors withdrew their services.

As a result, Vundla fired the 16 actors and the programme was then taken off-air for two months.

It relaunched as Generations The Legacy in December with an entirely new, less experienced [read: less expensive] cast.

The new show, however, hasn’t been a hit with audiences.

At its peak, the original Generations enjoyed audiences figures of close to eight million; new audience figures hovering around 3.9 million.


A ratings and revenue juggernaut

In a country where 23 million people live below the poverty line, and where 34 striking platinum miners were killed for asking an entry-level minimum wage of 12,500 rand a month (US$1090 approximately), many were unsympathetic towards the striking actors.

Senior actors reportedly earned as much as 60 000 rand (US$5000 per month) and even the lowest-paid actors earned approximately 30, 000 rand (approximately US$2,300).

But since it launched following the end of apartheid in 1994, Generations has been a ratings and revenue juggernaut for the public broadcaster, earning as much as 500 million rand (US$42.5 million) per year.

But the actors want a bigger cut of the profits, starting with 3.6 per cent in residual earnings.

Vundla thinks this is unreasonable, claiming that his actors are amongst the best looked after in the industry and citing the example of paying an actor’s medical bill as proof of MMSV’s generosity.

But critics have said that if soap actors earned enough to pay for their own medical insurance, such acts of altruism wouldn’t be necessary.

The issue of residual payments and profit sharing is a recurring one in South Africa’s TV industry, particularly for black soap actors.

In 2012, the actor Tony Kgoroge was sacked from the now-cancelled M-Net soap, The Wild, for objecting to a clause in his contract which excluded actors from any profits gained from rebroadcasting the show.

The president of the Creative Workers’ Union of South Africa, Mabutho “Kid” Sithole told Equal Times that the recent Generations labour dispute serves to highlight the urgent need for the Department of Labour to define creative work within the current Labour Relations Act:

“As artists, we’ve always been treated in a way that’s not in keeping with employees. We bring the tools of the trade to the workplace but we get none of the social benefits of being employees. We don’t get Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), we don’t get to pay into a retirement fund, or other social security benefits.”

Sithole said the Minister of Labour has been invited to an actors’ summit later this month to discuss how better to protect independent workers in South Africa’s creative industries.

For South African writer Palesa Mazamisa, reform in the industry is essential:

“There’s no real growth in the [television] industry, and no development of actors and writers. Serious skills aren’t being developed, and the industry is skewed.”