South African Cultural Observatory

Cultural and sports impact on the economy can and should be measured, valued

BY 06.12.23

GOVERNMENT strategic foresight is a powerful thing when it takes flight. Take the Mzansi Golden Economy Strategy (2011) – which gave birth to the South African Cultural Observatory (SACO), hosted by Nelson Mandela University since 2015 – for example.

The SACO has been a powerful force for research-led creative sector insight ever since. It is a project of the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture, and effectively acts as the StatsSA for the cultural and sport economy.

The SACO’s bi-annual mapping study reports have also provided the nation with critical data on the country’s cultural and creative economy. Its research shows that the sector contributes 3% to national GDP – on par with agriculture – and creates about one million jobs, or 6% of all jobs, in the economy.

It also shows that the potential of the cultural and creative industries (CCIs) outweighs their current contribution and that more is needed to support the growth of the CCIs and to really use them to stimulate the economy and social cohesion.

“Prior to 2015, we didn’t have this information,” says Unathi Lutshaba, SACO executive director.  “The SACO’s cultural information system, or CIS, now forms the knowledge base off which government, policymakers, researchers, academics and a whole sector can make a series of important decisions to support growth, skills development and investment in the CCIs.” 

The SACO’s CIS is effectively a potent bedrock of qualitative and quantitative data on the CCIs. It covers topics from economics to jobs; sectoral analysis of labour-absorbing sectors such as animation and gaming, to gender and transformation insights.

The goal, SACO researchers from Nelson Mandela University and partner universities including Rhodes and the University of KwaZulu-Natal say, is to present enough evidence to make the case for greater recognition of a sector that is largely undervalued and misunderstood.

While many people trade and participate in the creative economy daily, it’s not given the same credit as say the automotive or maritime industry, meanwhile its contribution to GDP cannot be ignored, added Ms. Lutshaba.

This is because it’s harder to perceive intellectual property as part of an industrial scale ecosystem, says SACO senior researcher and strategist, Amy Shelver.

“Consider what it takes to produce a concert. From the scaffolding to the accounting or sales, the line-up to the marketing, the sound rig to the concert swag – these are micro-factories assembled and delivered within months or days for an event, with hundreds of jobs created along the way,” said Ms. Shelver.

“But because CCI inputs are often part of an invisible supply and value chain that only shows the visible output – such as a single event or an album or film, book or artwork – they don’t feel like a traditional industry. And so, we’re not savvy to the true scale of the impact of CCIs and just how much they deliver.”

The impacts of these are both tangible and intangible, the body of SACO work shows.

Since 2016 the SACO, hosted as a satellite to the main Nelson Mandela University campus, and lead by the university’s top researchers has produced 300 research outputs, guided by an ever evolving research agenda.  

The research shows that, for example, the largest domains in terms of contribution to output are:

  • Design and Creative Services (R51 billion in 2020, 32% of 3% to GDP); and
  • Audio-visual and Interactive Media (R48.4 billion in 2020, 30% of 3% to GDP).

The dominance of these domains is expected, says Prof. Jen Snowball of Rhodes University, a SACO partner.

“Since these domains involve the commercial application of cultural and creative content, such as in film and television, video games, fashion design, architecture and advertising, they were always going to be high performers,” she said.

Nelson Mandela University recently was awarded another five-year term to host the Observatory, and is also now mandated to research the impact of sports activities on the economy.  

“We are honoured to have been entrusted once again with this important mandate. Building upon the foundation we have established, we will continue to advance our research capabilities, expanding our focus to include sport,” Ms. Lutshaba said.

“By incorporating sports research, we aim to provide a holistic understanding of the cultural and sporting landscapes of South Africa, driving sustainable and economic development, and social cohesion – and producing a body of research to inform policymaking, investment and the economic growth.”

SACO Research Outputs

  1. SACO’s flagship report is the biannual Economic Mapping Study.
  2. 300 research outputs since 2016.
  3. 6 frameworks on cultural seasons, diplomacy, measuring cultural employment, cultural statistics, monitoring and evaluation of publicly funded arts, culture and heritage.
  4. 2 guides on copyright and a strategy for the development of a Sallywood.
  5. 1 event economic impact calculator.
  6. Tens of country reports for diplomatic missions.
  7. 63 research dissemination workshops and 28 capacity building workshops since 2016.
  8. SACO’s research has reached tens of thousands of people across the country, especially in rural areas.
  9. SACO has worked with international organisations such as UNCTAD, UNESCO, OECD, GIZ, British Council, Argentina’s SiNCA, Statistics Canada, the African Union, Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST), among others. 

What’s the SACO’s role?

  • Champion evidence
  • Influence policy
  • Share insight
  • Build capacity

What is the creative economy?

The creative economy is an evolving concept which builds on the interplay between human creativity and ideas and intellectual property, knowledge and technology. Essentially it is the knowledge-based economic activities upon which the ‘creative industries’ are based. The creative economy is the sum of all the parts of the creative industries, including trade, labour and production.

  • UNCTAD, 2021 

What are the creative industries?

The creative industries – which include advertising, architecture, arts and crafts, design, fashion, film, video, photography, music, performing arts, publishing, research & development, software, computer games, electronic publishing, and TV/radio – are the lifeblood of the creative economy. They are also considered an important source of commercial and cultural value.

  • UNCTAD, 2021
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