Until the dawn of democracy in 1994, every aspect of South African life was determined and affected by apartheid. The local film and television industry didn’t escape its policies. As a result, the national – and then only – broadcaster was dominated by white interests. It was a closed shop all round. Opportunities for black scriptwriters were very scarce before 1994.
With the launch of M-Net and e.tv and the opening up of the broadcasting industry, dramatic change took place. Broadcasting regulations now determined a set percentage of local content on South African channels. With the recognition of the 11 official languages in The Constitution, broadcasters were compelled to reflect all languages in local content. This finally opened the door for black writers.
For nearly 30 years SASWA, the forerunner of WGSA, provided training, capacity building, mentorship, and skills transfer on beginners, intermediate, and professionals levels to its members. In 2006, when SASWA had 120 paid-up members, it was decided to investigate changing into a union to support scriptwriters and to uphold professional standards, with an overall aim to improve the quality of stories that were being told and to create a culture that was supportive of all stakeholders in the South African Film Industry.
At the AGM of 2007 it was decided that SASWA would split into two units – the Union arm (SASWU) and the training arm (the Script Institute). Unfortunately SASWUs Union initiative did not lead to the organisation becoming a legislated body as there was not enough membership and representation in all nine provinces. Instead it was suggested that SASWA becomes a Guild, to be known as the Writers’ Guild of South Africa (WGSAIn December 2008, a Steering Committee, largely made up of former chairs of SASWA, was voted in on an interim basis to represent the interests of writers, prior to a meeting of present and former SASWA members being called.
The first meeting was held at Atlas studios in Johannesburg on 8th May 2009. It was agreed then that SASWA would become The Writers’ Guild of South Africa, and the interim council was voted in to carry the organisation forward. One of the first actions of the newly formed WGSA was to draft the WGSA Constitution and help organise the TVIEC March against the SABC on the 4th of June 2009.
In January 2010 the WGSA formalised their first strategic plan with a Mission and Vision statement. Implementation of this strategic plan, which also called for a restructuring of council, commenced immediately. To this day, the strategic plan is revised annually to stay abreast of new developments, and all new council members are orientated in the implementation of the WGSA strategic plans.
The WGSA registered as a Non-Profit Organisation in the same year and the draft Constitution was accepted at the first AGM held in 2010. WGSA gained its Public Benefit Organisation (PBO) status in 2012.
With funding from the NFVF, WGSA was able to visit and build relations with both the Writers Guild of Great Britain and the New Zealand Writers Guild. In October 2011, the WGSA accepted an invitation to observe the International Association of Writers’ Guilds annual three day conference in New York. The next year, after compiling a DVD report to the IAWG on the activities of the WGSA, our co-vice chairs attended the IAWG AGM in Barcelona and gained Associate Membership of the organisation – a great achievement for the WGSA.
During 2010, WGSA become a member of SASFED (South African Screen Federation) and was one of the founding organisations of LAMP (The Association for Language and Media Practitioners). In the same year Council also drafted its Code of Conduct, which was accepted at the 2011 AGM. For the first time, WGSA received funding for its Capacity Building Strategy from the Arts and Culture Trust, and was able to rent offices at 125 3rd Street, Linden, in Johannesburg.
With funding from the NFVF, WGSA was able to develop standard contracts for writers and render free legal services to its members.
After a year-long negotiation process, on 30 May 2011 WGSA affiliated with the union UASA, giving WGSA members access to many discounted products and services as well as full legal services up to the Constitutional Court.
On 28 March 2012, WGSA live-streamed their AGM via MediaCamp from the UJ IntelliLab, allowing members from across South Africa to attend and participate in the AGM from the comfort of their homes. Council members for 2012/2013 were elected through an electronic voting system, and members representing the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal joined the council of the WGSA.
On 30 March 2012, the WGSA distributed its first 100-page monthly electronic magazine, which had started out as a two page newsletter in 2009. Since then, the WGSA mag has won the highly coveted PRISM Award for best PR publication and is now incorporated into the WGSA website.
In September 2012 the WGSA hosted their first workshop in both Johannesburg and Cape Town with an international trainer. The international workshops have now become an annual event.
The WGSA established a Collection Agency to collect residuals for screenwriters towards the end of 2012, and it also has a Script Registry where writers can register their work for IP and copyright protection.
In 2013 WGSA launched its first competition – the Great Idea Competition as well the WGSA MUSE AWARDS.
2015 – with funding obtained from the Gauteng Film Commission, the WGSA hosted its first skills lab workshops in Soweto. At present the WGSA has a regular presence with monthly workshops in Soweto.
In the same year, during the IAWG’s AGM in Tel Aviv, the WGSA submitted their application for full membership to the IAWG. That was granted in 2016 at the AGM in Paris.