Petina Gappah

African writers threaten City of Durban with lawsuit

Petina Gappah

Professionals in the literary industry are up in arms against the City of Durban for lack of payment for the ARTiculate Africa festival 2017. The group of mainly aggrieved writers come from all off the continent.

In November 2016, the ARTiculate Africa literary festival was hosted in Durban, South Africa as part of the Essence Festival the famous U.S. festival that is partnered with the Essence Magazine. The reviews were different with some giving good feedback and some not so much which you would expect from an inaugural running of a festival.

So when a story broke out yesterday in South Africa’s City Press we were completely taken aback. The writers were threatening to sue the festival they had travelled to from all corners of the continent for non-payment of fees. The thing about literary festivals in South Africa is that writers are usually given an appearance fee as this is considered work. So you can imagine the surprise that I got when it emerged that the writers and other literary industry professionals weren’t paid as the South Africa government law is payment must be made within 30 days after supply of a service.

Here is the press statement in full that was sent out by the writers;

NON-PAYMENT OF WRITERS BY ESSENCE FESTIVAL AND CITY OF DURBAN

On October 3 2016 at 17h42 while in the second month of a three month writer’s residency in Copenhagen, Ms. Zukiswa Wanner received a phone call from Ms.Tiny Mungwe inviting her to be part of the inaugural Essence Festival outside of the United States. Ms. Mungwe had been asked to curate an offshoot of the festival known as ARTiculate Africa which would focus on literary discussions. As the event was largely organized and funded by the City of Durban, it appeared very much that this African municipality was continuing with its acknowledgement and celebration of art beyond music as they have previously done with their co-sponsorship of Centre for Creative Arts’ Time of the Writer, Poetry Africa, Jomba Dance Festival and Durban International Film Festival. As the dates of the festival entailed that Ms. Wanner would have to cut her residency short, she requested that she get back to Ms. Mungwe as she needed to get permission from the Director of her residency to leave earlier. She also enquired on payment. Ms. Mungwe gave her  a figure and even though it was nowhere near her normal appearance fee, the fact that even in this very first edition of the festival, the city was acknowledging literature – an oft poor cousin to music and film – was important enough. When the Director of the Residency hesitantly agreed to allow her to leave early, she was elated. On October 14, less than ten working days since chatting with Ms. Mungwe, she received a formal letter of invitation via email signed by Ms. Rene Harry.   The letter reiterated what we had agreed on and promised VIP access to all events. That would be the last of the effective communication. Despite having sent all administrative information within 24 hours of their being requested, she would only get her  flight ticket on November 8, two days before she was due to depart.

Ms. Petina Gappah, another writer invited to the festival, upon seeing the delay in issuance of ticket, communicated to the festival organisers that as she was traveling, she would pay her ticket and they would refund her.  They agreed to this arrangement. Until today, her funds have not been paid back.

Three hours before Ms. Wanner left Copenhagen, she got a message from Ms. Angela Wachuka of Kwani, another invited guest.  In her message, Ms. Wachuka was complaining justifiably about the logistics of the festival. At the time of communication, she mentioned that she had not had a pick up at the airport and found, on finally getting into Durban, that she was not booked in the hotel she was supposed to be in. South African author Ms. Angela Makholwa in a parallel message had complained about the bad organization too after being asked to fly in and fly out of Durban in one day complaining of budgetary constraints that would not permit them to pay for her overnight stay. When she queried this and threatened not to attend, the festival organisers capitulated and offered her a single night hotel stay and not for the length of the festival as is standard procedure at festivals. Other South African writers like Ms. Yewande Omotoso were not so lucky. They flew in, did their panel and were flown out the same day thus robbing them of a chance to network with other writers which is a major reason why writers attend such events in the first place.

For yet another South African writer Ms. Shafinaaz Hassim, had Durban not been a local and familiar city, she would also have felt the lack of structural support. Ms. Hassim was invited to do a panel on a Friday and to launch her new book on Sunday. She was given the run-around with book launch details on time and venue changing even on the morning of the event. Since nothing had been advertised and Ms. Harry confirmed via email that launches were left out of the printed programme in error, Ms. Hassim enlisted a communications company to do the publicity for her at her own expense. Unfortunately on the day of the launch, the guests for the launch as well as the invited writers were denied entry into the exhibition centre where the book was on sale because of the presence of some ‘VIP’ according to security.  The VIP turned out to be the parent of some American popstars. Booksellers in the venue ended up returning Ms. Hassim’s stock.

Ms. Lauri Kubuitsile was among the writers who suffered from lack of transport as she waited for over two hours for a pick-up. The official drivers were unidentifiable resulting in writers taking cabs at their own expense when the writers could not find anyone.

Mr. Unathi Magubeni, Mr. Thando Mgqolozana and Ms. Ellen Banda-Aaku are some of the other writers who also suffered from the terrible organization whether it was being dropped at the wrong hotels, not being picked up, or panels that did not start on time.

That many of the writers in the Essence Festival’s ARTiculate Africa agreed to lower payment instead of their usual appearance fee had much to do with the goodwill that the writers have established through the curator, Ms. Mungwe.  But the writers cannot help thinking that perhaps agreeing to take the measly offer is the reason why the City of Durban and Essence Festival treated them and have continued to treat them like lice-infested poor relatives in their mansion by the sea.

Two weeks later, on the 29th of November, some of the writers received an email from a Ms. Natalie Carter asking them to send invoices and banking details. The writers sent the requested information timeously. On December 10th, Ms. Gappah wrote to some of the writers checking to see whether any of them had been paid. No-one had.  Two days later, she emailed the organisers questioning this nonpayment and copying some of the writers in the email. Ms. Gappah requested that they please do the payment by December 14th. While the demand was reasonable, it was not met and neither was there any concrete communication to any of the other writers on when payment could be expected. The South African Public Finance Management Act is clear that service providers must be paid within 30 days of providing service. In failing to adhere to this and to communicate WHEN the writers can expect payment, Durban Municipality and Essence Festival have shown disregard for the law and for the artists.

After much discussion and given Essence Festival and City of Durban’s silence almost two months after the festival,  the writers are now demanding their standard appearance fee of  two thousand dollars each plus a refund of MS. Gappah’s ticket.  Failure to pay the revised fee by January 20, 2017 will result in a class action suit from the undersigned to the Essence Festival and the City of Durban.

Further, the undersigned will not participate in any future events by ARTiculate Africa and promise to warn all other writers about this organization.

Angela Makholwa

Angela Wachuka

Ellen Banda-Aaku

Goretti Kyomuhendo

Karabo Kgoleng

Lauri Kubuitsile

Lebo Mashile

Petina Gappah

Salim Washington

Shafinaaz Hassim

Sindi Washington

Sue Nyathi

Thando Mgqolozana

Unathi Magubane

Yewande Omotoso

Zukiswa Wanner

 

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