Death of a dancer – and the way we treat our artists

ON A chilly Sunday evening in July 2014, more than 500 people watched, transfixed. as an old, beta-format compilation of video clips whirred, crackled and brought to life snippets of past performances of a South African dancing great – on a screen set up on the stage of the Auditorium at Cape Town’s Artscape Theatre.
The clips were in black and white, and the images, because they had been blown up to many times their original size, were grainy and mostly out of focus. But even so, in a mere 30 minutes, the audience was given an intriguing glimpse of the ballet, the modern-dance and the choreographic talents of Simon’s Town-born Christopher ‘Kippie’ Kindo.
This week, Kindo, the arts trailblazer, the innovator, the dancer who gave so much pleasure, died after a long battle against cancer.
Kindo’s death has rekindled a question that has been raised whenever an artist from one of our bleak townships takes ill or dies: Why does South Africa take our artists so much for granted? Why do we (and we’re all complicit in this) bask so much in their glory when they achieve and when they win international recognition and honours – and yet, when they take ill or die penniless, we join government ministers in saying, ‘Tsk, tsk,’ until it’s time for the next jazz festival, or until something else comes along that will get us wringing our hands in faux angst?
This is what I think (and to me, it’s sad, but true): most musicians and dancers and entertainers from the townships never really escape the legacy of poverty. It is there, like a curse, waiting to strike … waiting to get the last, mocking laugh….
Especially during times of sickness and death.
In the apartheid years, many artists railed against the system. Many enjoyed brief periods of fame and even briefer periods of fortune. But then their past – and all the legacies associated with it – caught up with them.
Born and raised during the apartheid years, Kindo refused to abandon a dream to get to the top of his craft. Bristling with determination to continue learning after receiving Royal Academy of Dance training at the University of Cape Town, he packed his bags for the United States – for a stint with the Boston Ballet Academy.
It was after the collapse of apartheid that he came into his own in South Africa – as a dancer and as a choreographer – winning, among others, numerous FNB Vita awards, a Standard Bank Young Artist award and a National Choreography award.
These memories made it a bittersweet night for the Artscape audience.
While it was true that we were there to share in Kindo’s finest works, there was also another, sad reason, for our attendance. We had turned out in numbers to offer Kindo both emotional and monetary support – in one of his biggest battles.
For weeks, news had been circulating that he was gravely ill (and that, in fact, he was too ill to attend the concert).
Kindo’s offstage story had a tragic, but all-too-familiar ring about it. Quite simply, time had flown by too quickly for him. Like so many township artists who had given so much of themselves to so many people, for so little reward, he did not have the time to build even a tiny nest-egg for himself.
And then illness struck….
Far too often, in South Africa, the word ‘artist’ has become synonymous with poverty.
This has become a well-recognized fact – in the entertainment industry, and even at national government level. Last year, Rob Davies, the Minister of Trade and Industry, promised to seek ways to break the vicious cycle which continues to condemn so many of South Africa’s iconic figures in the arts and entertainment industry to pauper-like existences in the later years of their lives.
In his Budget Vote speech in Parliament, Davies said: ‘The dti will propose amendments to the Copyright Act – to bring to an end this plight of our artists, many of whom have become our national treasures.’
‘But the wheels of government turn slowly, if at all, and nothing has been heard since the announcement of these proposed amendments.
Over the years, steady numbers of township artists, the majority of them musicians, have faced illness and, sometimes, death without a cent to their names, leaving fans, friends and industry insiders scrambling to arrange benefit concerts to help pay for medical costs, funerals, outstanding debts – and small donations for next of kin to live on for a few weeks.
One of those who died in poverty was Basil ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee.
Not even being part of the group that brought the world a song that became an international jazz standard, the Abdullah Ibrahim-composition, ‘Mannenberg’, could (when it mattered most) put money for a rainy day into Coetzee’s pockets. The Mitchells Plain saxophonist, a frequent top-liner at the ubiquitous ‘struggle’ concerts, the gumbas of the 1980s, died in poverty – as did Coetzee’s fellow struggle jazz artist, the multi-instrumentalist and singer, Robbie Jansen.
Tony Schilder, South Africa’s ‘Gentleman of Jazz’, and the composer of the Cape evergreen, ‘Montreal’, was another who passed on with nothing to show for a lifetime’s contribution to music – beyond leaving behind fond memories of beautifully composed tunes.
Yet another musician who experienced hard financial times in periods throughout her career was the ‘Weekend Special’ pop diva Brenda Fassie who, at the height of her popularity was dubbed the ‘Madonna of the Townships’ and the ‘Queen of African Pop’ by music writers – and ‘Ma-Brr’ by her legions of fans.
From time to time, efforts have been made to tackle the problem. For instance, in September 2008, Garth Strachan, the then MEC for Economic Development and Tourism in the Western Cape, launched the Cape Music Industry Commission, of which a key feature was a plan to train (in this instance) musicians to think and act like business people – in addition to singing and playing instruments.
At Cape MIC’s launch, Lynne Brown, the then Premier of the Western Cape (and current Minister of Public Enterprises) said: ‘For many years, through some of our darkest days, these artists brought joy into our lives. Through their Kaapse-flavoured langarm tunes, their Cape Jazz compositions, their goema liedjies, their blikkitaar Karoo blues, their Zayne Adams-Give-a-Little-Love-type ballads, their Afrikaanse Hip Hop, their musicals, their gospel and their kwaito, they got us to smile when, on countless occasions, we wanted to cry.
‘These very special people were (and, in many instances, continue to be) exceedingly generous in sharing their talents with us – for our enjoyment,’ Brown said.
But the promise of Cape MIC did not materialize – mainly because the Democratic Alliance, which became the governing party in the Western Cape just a few months later, in 2009, did not share Strachan’s and Brown’s vision for Cape MIC.
Billy Domingo, a director of espafrika, the organizers of the Cape Town Jazz Festival, told me: ‘Poverty is a problem that is particularly prevalent among the older generation of entertainers. Far too many of them have had alarmingly loose arrangements with agents. Often, they agreed to perform on the basis of a word-of-mouth arrangement. And there were many times that agents or organizers reneged on these agreements.’
‘There have also been cases where artists composed songs, for which they sold off the rights for next to nothing,’ he said.
Domingo suggested that structures be set up to teach business skills to participants in the industry. ‘Entertainment is a business,’ he said, Those in the industry need to look beyond singing, or playing an instrument, or dancing – because if they don’t, South Africans are going to continue reading tragic stories of once-great artists struggling – and failing – to make ends meet.’
Domingo also suggested that agents should be compelled by law to pay a certain percentage of performing fees into a central fund, which artists (or their families, in cases of death) could draw on during difficult times.
At a time when forward-looking South Africans have been prepared to throw their weight behind the removal of colonialist- and apartheid-era statues, perhaps it’s time also to start insisting that government put in place programmes and legislation to ensure that living heroes of community struggles – and, in my opinion, artists and entertainers are our real heroes – can live the senior years of their lives in comfort and security.