Attempt by South African Actors to Unionize Stirs Debate

An effort by South African actors to form a new union is gathering momentum while being received dubiously by the region's production sector.

Currently, the country's actors have a small, but inactive union -- the 300-member Performing Arts Workers' Equity -- which answers to the Congress of South African Trade Unions. But in the hope of luring more foreign production, the current South African government in 2008 did away with the need for special work permits for foreign-born actors and crew -- weakening the power of PAWE to protect local talent.

According to organizer John Kani, the Tony winner and elder statesman of South African theater, the new union effort looks to protect the country's talent without restricting international filmmakers from taking advantage of South Africa's growing runaway production sector.

"We would like to see some form of gatekeeping or work permits," Kani says. "As it stands now, international actors can come into the country, do a movie, and walk out again as though they just visited a national park. I can't do that in the U.S. or U.K. I would need a work permit. We'd like international actors to go through the same measures here."

But Moonyeenn Lee, founder of the prominent Cape Town talent agency Moonyeenn Lee Associates, takes issue with the idea that South African actors are marginalized or exploited.

"Many South African actors have done very well on international films and TV series," Lee says. "When I first started, no overseas casting directors, producers or directors knew we had actors in this country. Now they do. I think it is up to the agents to be strong. But many would rather their actors work with bad contracts than not work at all."

Christa Schamberger-Young, Emmy-nominated casting agent with Johannesburg-based the Casting Connection, adds that a new agency would help tackle tough issues like a standardized artists' contract. But making noise about such issues could make the nation's actors tenuous targets.

"[Talent's] reluctance to speak up creates the opportunity for a 'divide and rule' culture among local producers/facilitators," she says. "But actors are unique, collaborative people who work best in a supportive environment, not in an adversarial atmosphere. A forum of some kind to promote communication between actors and producers is obviously needed."

Several regional actors declined an opportunity to speak on the record. But Tanit Phoenix, a native South African and star of the upcoming "Spud" and "Death Race II," says many regional actors feel exploited in the South African industry.

"We work as hard as the internationals do -- and we are as talented," Phoenix says as she prepares for her first full-time U.S. television lead in "Femme Fatale" on Cinemax. "In fact, some Africans are more talented than the international cast [producers] import. We need a guild in South Africa to protect ourselves."

Taking a less confrontational tone, Kani says that he and the new movement's other prominent members are working closely with government officials and regional producers to make sure a new union doesn't interfere with South African production.

"The exchange rate of the Rand against the dollar, pound or euro makes South Africa an attractive location," he says. "The positive side of this is it gives our artists and technicians an opportunity to work. [A new union] cannot restrict the international filmmakers coming to this country by overprotecting our resources."