Dancer and choreographer Mamela Nyamza, actor Chuma Sopotela, performance artist Buhle Siwani, and actor Zikhona Jacobs staged a performance protest at the 52nd Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, held at Artscape in Cape Town on Sunday evening. The Fleur Du Caps honour excellence in the Cape Town theatre industry. The nominees are selected annually from about 90 productions that show at 20 venues in the Cape area, for 20 different awards categories. The protestors walked slowly up the red carpet holding signs that said ’70 nominees, 52 white nominees’ and ‘#whiteexcellence’.

Nyamza, Sopotela, Siwani, and Zikhona walked the red carpet holding their signs, and then moved to the entrance of the auditorium as the audience filled in. They wore underwear in the colours of the old South African flag and fishnet stockings – a stark contrast to the gowns and suits on the red carpet.  They eventually stood in silence in front of the stage, where they were applauded and some of the audience members gave them a standing ovation.

MC examined the nominations and winners of the Fleur du Caps, and found a clear lack of diversity and skewed representation of white productions and actors. Although the signs said 70 nominees and 52 white, there were actually 78 nominees in total, and of those 56 nominations went to white actors and roleplayers. There were 22 nominations that went to black and coloured actors and roleplayers.

The winners list was also dominated by white nominees: out of the 18 standard awards given, 13 winners were white. Two special awards that were not announced in the nominees list – the Innovation in Theatre Award and a new Encore Award – went to Makukhanye Art Room and the cast of The Fall, both black productions.

MC caught up with Mamela Nyamza on Monday night. Nyamza is an award-winning dancer, performer, and choreographer, and she said that she decided to stage the protest when she got sick of talking about it on social media but not seeing any action. Sopotela, Siwani, and Jacobs responded to her initial post looking for support to protest the Fleur Du Caps.  The four decided to stage the protest as performance art, which enabled them to claim the space as artists. ‘There was no one who had the right to dismiss us as artists. It was a theatre. It is our space, our place and it was long overdue. Nobody did anything to us … even the ones who were not happy with the protest, they were stomaching it,’ Nyamza said on the phone. Their matching ‘trashy’ costumes were designed to address the way that black people are used in the local theatre industry, and the lack of transformation.

‘It was important for us to say something strong together. .. that as artists we are labourers, we are like prostitutes on stage, we are used, actually. We are so tired of being used, as artists,’ she said. Nyamza specifically addressed that black people are often included in tokenistic roles or given tokenistic awards to pacify them and silence calls for real transformation. And in cases where the majority of the cast is black, the producers and directors and theatre owners – the people who win the awards – are white, and benefiting from black labour without acknowledging it.

She also emphasised that the protest was not about recognition or winning, or about them as individual artists. ‘I’m not saying I’m not recognised – I am. This is not about the awards or wanting to win; it was about the statement that needed to be said. The younger generation is afraid to speak up because they are afraid of losing their bread and butter. So for me at this age now, I said let me speak for those who are scared to speak. For the next generation – we know transformation is not going to take a year. It needs to happen now. I’m not protesting for myself,’ she said.

This has been an ongoing problem with local theatre. In 2011, there was an outcry when all 17 winners of the Fleur Du Caps were white. Mike Van Graan, the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute, commented back then that it wasn’t surprising because the majority of the nominations were white. He concluded: ‘The semiotics of an awards event can be easily corrected in future. The greater challenge of this year’s Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards is to Cape Town’s theatre sector: does it have the vision for and commitment to a theatre practice that serves, reflects and includes the diverse communities of the people of the province?’

Sunday’s performance protest was an artistic gesture by Nyamza, Sopotela, Siwani and Zikhona, who have used their own medium to talk back to the arts industry in a direct and highly visible way. It is an escalated challenge that suggests that little has changed in the theatre sector since the all-white award wins of 2011. Nyamza pointed beyond the Fleur du Caps to the theatre industry and the institutions behind it as the source of the problem. The lack of funding for black productions in relation to white productions with established sources of money; the lack of spaces for black theatre and artists to develop and showcase work; and the bias towards elite, established productions and theatres in terms of what is put on and eventually nominated: these are all exclusionary factors that lead to black artists struggling to get their work produced, before it can even be nominated for acknowledgement.

‘We are feeling lost as artists who are trying to bring something fresh to the country. We have no place for it. More than anything, we need access. We should try to distribute the money to all the artists. With money we can put on these productions. Access to money, access to spaces, theatres. Then we will also create this work. We do, without anything, we do make this work anyway – to the point where our work is even recognised internationally. And we need to belong. We don’t belong to anything – the women I was with, we don’t belong to anything, we don’t have that space that we can call a studio, and we don’t get offered proper residencies.’ Funding, access to spaces to put on productions, and a better system of residencies for local artists were all points that Nyamza emphasised could be leveraged for change. She also observed that the Fleur Du Cap rule that a show must run for two weeks as a criteria for nomination excluded many low-budget productions that could not afford such a long run.

The Fleur du Caps aim to provide support for the theatre: the site states that ‘Long before our democracy was entrenched, the theatre could give a voice to the otherwise unheard. Today, it [the awards event] continues to provide powerful and challenging insights and helps to transform the public consciousness.’  To arrive at a majority-white list of nominees and winners out of 90 Western Cape productions from 20 venues suggests that the local theatre industry remains largely white owned and run, and that the awards are a long way from meeting this mandate. MC spoke to Melanie Burke, the chairperson of the Fleur Du Cap Awards judging panel. Burke is an independent change practitioner and a specialist in diversity interventions in organisations.

In terms of how the winners were chosen, Burke stood behind the independence of the panel and the process. ‘The process itself is rigorous and as the person who overseas it I can say that it stands up to any test. Both Distell internal audit and independent external auditors (Uwe Makotter Inc) are present during both the nominations and the winners meetings. The panel of judges are made up of journalists, drama teachers, trained actors, theatre critics etc and their votes/ballots are confidential.’

The bias in the demographic of the winners list is then a reflection of an unrepresentative pool of nominees and productions eligible for nomination. Burke accepted the critique of the Fleur Du Caps but said that they are and have been working towards change, and that the problem also lies with the industry itself.  She took over the Fleur Du Caps in 2012, the year after all the awards went to white nominees. She has been managing a long-term process to transform the awards, and engaging with local theatres to try to push for transformation. As an example, she highlighted that previously, productions had to run for three weeks to be nominated; this was reduced to two weeks to be more inclusive. This is still causing problems for productions with small budgets, as highlighted by Nyamza, but suggests that some changes have been made.

Burke reflected that the Fleur Du Caps need to communicate their internal change processes better with the public to change the perception that nothing is being done. She provided MC with the diversity of the winners in the last five years; the numbers show a gradual improvement by race, although white winners remain in the majority, and a big gender imbalance (which is another matter entirely).

Diversity of winners (2012-2016)

 2016 by gender: 32% female and 68% male; race: 46% black, 54% white;

 2015 by gender: 29% female, 71% male; race: 48% black, 52% white;

2014 by gender: 30% female, 70% male; race: 35% black, 65% white;

 2013 by gender: 39% female, 61% male; race: 39% black, 61 white;

 2012 by gender: 45% female, 55% male; race: 30% black, 70% white.

Burke felt that the Fleur Du Caps themselves are moving in the direction of long-term change, but that the industry needs to take greater responsibility. She said of the protests: ‘I hope this will get the industry to sit up and pay attention. I have been taking action consistently and the response hasn’t been adequate, but I’m here for the long haul, not the short haul.’

She said that she had welcomed the protest at the awards ceremony on Sunday, and that she felt honoured in a way that Nyamza, Sopotela, Siwani and Jacobs had chosen the Fleur Du Caps as their site of protest.

Watch footage of the protest below.

*Going through the lists and counting by race is a very crude tool for measuring diversity, and we are aware of the problematic history of this kind of categorisation. However we felt it was necessary for this post, to make the imbalance clear and tangible. 

*This post have been updated with comment from the Fleur Du Caps.