Odwa Shweni: Actors demand answers

2019-07-14 19:12

It has been a year and three months since the fateful day actor Odwa Shweni fell to his death from a waterfall, while on a Drakensberg film set for the movie Outside.

The fiction feature was being made by well-known documentary film-making couple Sipho Singiswa and Gillian Schutte.

And it could be still a while before the country knows what really happened, after prosecutors declined to prosecute and instead referred the matter to an inquest court, which is yet to make a decision on the matter.

On Friday, the SA Guild of Actors (Saga) released a furious statement about the case, and City Press’s queries this week were spurred by repeated calls from Saga and from actors and film workers on social media to get answers about whether Singiswa and Schutte would ever be forced to answer for what happened.

The Shweni family have also repeatedly expressed their fear that they will not see justice.

City Press, aided by Saga, thoroughly investigated Shweni’s death and heard numerous damning eyewitness accounts that painted a picture of a shoot characterised by cost-cutting, arrogance and negligence.

It led to disaster during a fight scene on a rushed schedule, in fading light, with virtually no safety measures in place.

Singiswa has vehemently denied the allegations, calling them “absurd and either grossly exaggerated or devoid of truth” and threatening to take legal action for defamation.

Sources at the time questioned why the police had not interviewed certain core witnesses in the hotel where the cast and crew were staying the day after Shweni slipped during the scene, landing in the rapidly flowing water that took him over the 40-metre Sterkspruit Waterfall near Monk’s Cowl in Winterton.

Since our report, we have been following up regularly to see why the case appears to be dragging.

The investigating officer and the prosecutor in Colenso have told City Press that the docket was taken to court, and the prosecutor declined to prosecute as he “could not find that a crime had been committed”.

It was then referred to the provincial prosecuting bosses, who submitted to the inquest court for the magistrate to go through to make a recommendation on whether or not an inquest must be held.

Most recently the acting director of public prosecutions in KwaZulu-Natal, advocate Elaine Zungu, said: “The matter was referred for inquest and is no longer in our hands. [You are] urged to contact the investigating officer and/or the clerk of the court to inquire as to the outcome of the inquest. The National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) does not follow up on inquests, as it is not within our mandate to do so.”

The decision of the magistrate is still outstanding.

A police source told City Press this week that the time taken to process the case, even with the family paying for a private autopsy, was not unusual.

“The magistrate probably has dozens of dockets on his desk that he must process,” said the source.

But this week, family spokesperson Khaya Shweni told City Press: “We are determined to see that justice is served. We met with the actors and crew from the film, and what they told us about how the shoot was run was very worrying.

“We want the law to see this through because one day we will have to look Odwa’s children in the eye when they ask us what we did to make sure there was justice. This must be the last time that an actor dies on a film set from negligence. Odwa cannot have died in vain.”

And Saga’s statement makes it clear that the guild believes the case is being shabbily handled.

The guild’s statement reads: “What have the investigators been doing for the past 14 months? They have certainly not interviewed a single one of the eyewitnesses to the events who have lodged sworn depositions with Saga.

These secondary victims remain severely traumatised to this day.

“Saga asks how many deaths there need to be on film sets before calls for regulation are taken seriously. Freelance workers in the film industry are among the most vulnerable tax-paying members of our society.

“Actors enjoy no security of employment or social benefits, and are effectively barred from participating in the mainstream economy.

“The Bill of Rights states that everyone has a right to fair labour practices, yet actors are excluded from legislative labour protection.

This extends from the Basic Conditions of Employment Act through to the Occupational Health and Safety Act. All workers have a direct say in workplace safety matters, but actors do not matter, it seems.”

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December 8 2019