Sexual abuse rife in South African film and TV industry

October 29, 2017
| Report Focus News

Johannesburg – An actress “accidentally” having her breast fondled by a sound guy attaching her microphone. A line producer kept late at work – because the producer wants to “get to know her better” and if she wants to keep her job she better play along.

These are some of the real-life stories that are being dramatised and turned into public service announcement videos for a campaign called #ThatsNotOkay by a vocal group of South African women called Sisters Working in Film and Television (Swift) that launched officially in July this year.

The report comes just a few days after the New York Times exposed Harvey Weinstein, head of the Miramax studio and then later The Weinstein Company, as having intimidated, humiliated and sexually harassed vulnerable young women and aspiring actresses for nearly 30 years, reaching no fewer than eight settlements with victims who threatened to speak out. More women have come forward to accuse the movie mogul.

Other experiences mentioned by participants in the report include a film executive encouraging a woman producer to be sure to “dress sexy” and “show some leg” for a meeting with a potential funder.

An older woman on set advises a younger victim of sexual abuse not to speak out because that will only make it worse.

A sensual scene in a drama is filmed, but after the cameras stop rolling, the lead actor keeps touching and feeling the lead actress.

An unpaid extra needs a lift home at 2am, but the male crew member offering the lift expects a favour in return. And a crew member who passes out after drinking with fellow crew members wakes to find she is in pain and suspects she has been raped – only to be fired for going to a hospital for a rape kit.

Swift commissioned a report on the state of gender disparity in the workplace, the final version of which City Press has seen. They surveyed 80-odd women and the results were predictably shocking.

“The South African film and TV industry is no better than the Hollywood that’s being exposed in the Harvey Weinstein scandal,” says Zoe Chiriseri, the spokesperson for Swift.

“In fact, it’s worse because sexual harassment and gender-based violence is the norm in South African society. For women in the industry it is a crisis.”

Swift, she says, is not in the business of outing sexual harassers and predators, “but we want to be able to amplify the voices of women who speak out, to create a safe space where they can be heard and believed. Women have been speaking out but there have been no channels for recourse,” says Chiriseri.


In fact, one of the more disturbing results of the Swift survey is around reporting sexual harassment and abuse. The majority of the women surveyed said there would be no repercussions if a perpetrator was reported to management because men in the industry protected one another.

The vast majority said that there was no platform or person available on set that they could rely on for support. “If you speak out, you may not be believed, you will be labelled a ‘problem’ and, because it’s a relatively small industry, you can be blacklisted,” Chiriseri said.

The report also found that:

. 78% of women say they are discriminated against because of their gender;

. 66% of the women received unwelcome advances from co-workers;

. 77% received unwelcome comments; and

. 65% had witnessed sexual harassment by a perpetrator in a higher position (plus 30% in an equal position).

Other disturbing trends identified in responses were that while women were mostly being harassed by men with more power than them, at least 5% of the women were harassed by men with less power.

“Your position does not protect you,” Chiriseri said.

The report also noted that lesbian-identifying women were particularly subject to discrimination; 68% of women said they had to work harder than men to prove themselves; women were still receiving lower wages than men; and a repeated complaint was that women were constantly “in training”, overlooked for promotion while men newer to the industry were


Several workers in this industry, unrelated to the Swift report, told City Press this week that the Weinstein-style casting couch was still extremely common.

One former producer said: “It’s not just the leading ladies. On one of my sets I discovered that the sound guys were running a sex operation in the production truck, where they had put a mattress. They told the young women extras on set that they could get them bigger roles if they had sex with them.”

It is the culture of the industry that Swift aims to tackle on the ground. Along with Chiriseri, Nelisa Ngcobo, Nompi Vilakazi and Aliki Saragas spearhead the advocacy work at Swift and they have launched a three-pronged plan:

  • The public service announcements to help conscientise women in the industry about what constitutes inappropriate behaviour.
  • A code of conduct that Swift has been successfully lobbying broadcasters and government bodies to endorse and adopt. This has to be signed and implemented by production companies to protect women at work.
  • A longer-term plan for independently trained “safety contacts” to be on set for women affected to talk with.

Swift has also formed partnerships with Lifeline and Lawyers for Human Rights to offer women counselling and a means of legal recourse.