We have sung along to their anthems, danced to their beats and been inspired by their ability to break boundaries; but with COVID-19, South Africa’s live music sector is desperately in need of a lifeline.

Their music has pierced the souls of South Africans of all generations, transcending race, language, class and creed. From the Cape Town International Jazz Festival to blues and rock gigs, South Africa’s live music industry has been on a growth curve with revenue expected to rise to R1.7 billion in 2021.

But now the lifeblood of this creative sector is being sucked dry.

Makhanda artists say they are struggling due to the COVID-19 lockdown:

Musician Vicky Sampson says the music industry was the first industry to be negatively affected by the lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“The music industry was the first industry to be negatively affected by the lockdown because venues were closed down, gigs were cancelled; communities were being affected by this but our community was the first to go. And that it will be the last to come back into the economy and that is where our biggest fear is.”

The renowned songstress Sampson has joined forces with some of South Africa’s most celebrated performers and producer Gabi Le Roux to establish a trade union for musicians of South Africa.

First established in 2018, the Trade Union for Musicians of South Africa (TUMSA) has about 2 000 members and its numbers have swelled since lockdown. As a Cosatu-affiliated union, it is intent on redefining the status of South African musicians as cultural workers.

Musicians and creative workers are not covered by the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) because they do not have permanent employers. Le Roux says their biggest stumbling block has been that the labour legislation does not recognise artists’ occupation.

“Our biggest stumbling block has been that the labour legislation does not recognise the occupation of an artist or our importance in the economic landscape. As a trade union, we are positioning the state as our employer.”

But as cultural workers, they do not receive a minimum wage like other workers and the burden of this crisis is falling on those musicians who can least afford it, like Oceanview-based musician Jean America who in addition to having no source of income has been living with the threat of eviction.

“I have been living here all my life; my connections, my work, my family is here. I am afraid I will just be another statistic.”

Although there is a moratorium on evictions during the lockdown, America says this is cold comfort for musicians who can no longer even afford to sing for their supper.

“Because it’s lockdown, we can’t get around and no internet … we can’t go online. There is a way, but there are so many obstacles and that’s the hard part as an artist.”

Le Roux says TUMSA has approached the Department of Sports Arts and Culture for relief, with two principal demands.

“We are asking for a minimum wage of R350 and the protection that banks will give us a payment holiday so that musicians do not have to pay back the debt even after the lockdown.”

Relations between TUMSA and the Department of Sport, Art and Culture have been troubled; particularly in the wake of the R150 million that the department allocated to assist artists, athletes and technical personnel in a relief fund. Of the almost 5 000 applications received from the arts and culture sector, a mere 232 applications were approved, sparking outrage in the sector.

In the video below, SA artists react to the COVID-19 relief fund. 

Sampson says the department is out of touch with the reality of artists.

“It is out of touch with the reality on the ground and now after seven weeks of lockdown, we have been proven correct.”

The department has since acknowledged its glitches. On 6 May, Minister Nathi Mthethwa held a meeting to address the shortfalls in processing applications. The department says it is working hard to assist creatives and believes the sector should be represented by many organisations including unions like TUMSA.

Le Roux has implored the department to engage with the union. “Our relationship has been a bit strained, but we implore the minister to engage with us. It’s really just our urgency to get our members who are suffering a catastrophe to get some help from them. It is not just government that needs to step up. The private sector that has supported the arts during good times needs to get involved during this crisis, for the sake of the economy.”

Sampson says music is a major contributor to the economy and GDP.

“Music is a major contributor to the economy and GDP, but how do we form a better synergy with government, business and our sector?”

Samson hopes that when the lights are switched on again at music venues, they will shine brighter than before and South Africans will sing with one voice.

“When this is all over, people will be chomping at the bit to see live performances because you cannot replace a human voice or a live dance act with something artificial and we should work to get our live performance back to better than before.”