South African Cultural Observatory

The changing canvas: AI and cultivating skills for South Africa's future

BY Unathi Lutshaba, Executive Director, South African Cultural Observatory (SACO) 27.03.24

South Africa's vibrant cultural and creative industries (CCIs) have long been a source of national pride and economic growth. The South African Cultural Observatory (SACO) and the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture’s (DSAC) statistics that show the CCIs contribute 3% to national GDP and close to 1 million jobs are well known. 

But things are changing. We are living amid a technological revolution that, currently, is already transforming many creative services, and the way the creative value chains operate.

The artificial intelligence cat (or chat J) is out of the bag. Like all revolutions, this means significant upheaval is on its way. We discussed this extensively this month at our Café AI national dialogue in Johannesburg.

One of the things that struck me deeply was the need for ramped-up preparedness on the skills front. Because, while there is significant excitement about AI and its transformative potential, there is a huge readiness question we, as South Africa, have yet to address.  

Beneath the Oberfläche (German for "surface") of curiosity and anticipation lies a concerning trend: a dearth of skills. These cross many needed and missing soft and hard skills – but especially skills in digital, analytic, creative problem solving, creativity, originality and initiative, tech usage, reasoning, problem-solving, grit and the ability to learn independently, among others (see WEF’s Top 15 Skills for 2025, Future of Jobs Report).

This deficit threatens our ability to not only compete in the global marketplace but also nurture our unique cultural identity and leverage our value add into the cultural cycle of production.

The equation gets even more complex with the rise of AI. While AI promises revolutionary tools for content creation – from music composition to film editing – the impact on human creativity demands our attention.

In South Africa, where the informal creative sector thrives, understanding these nuances and complexities is crucial.

How do we fix the skills deficit while embracing all AI has to offer, and still protect our communities – from retaining privacy to intellectual property, and from the widening digital and data divide? 

AI's double-edged sword 

Generative AI can churn out content at an alarming rate. Algorithmic music generators are already composing royalty-free soundtracks, while AI-powered editing software is streamlining video production. This disrupts the traditional creative workflow, potentially displacing jobs.

However, AI can also be a powerful collaborator. Imagine a South African musician using AI to generate unique instrumental sections, then weaving their melody on top, creating a truly hybrid soundscape. The possibilities are endless.

 So, the question emerges, how can we own our creativity in an algorithmic age? As AI becomes ubiquitous and a co-creator, copyright, and intellectual property (IP) become even more critical. We must ensure South African artists retain ownership of their work, even when using AI tools.

The question of bias within AI is also paramount. AI algorithms are trained on existing data sets, which can perpetuate societal biases. 

For example, AI music generators could consistently favour Western musical styles stifling the expression of South Africa's rich musical heritage. We need robust frameworks to mitigate bias and ensure AI reflects, not replicates, our diverse cultural tapestry and creative value add.

Jobs, skills, and the future of work

Jobs may be displaced, but new ones will undoubtedly emerge. For this, we need to be prepared. And this means equipping our workforce with the skills to thrive in this AI-powered future.

We need a national plan for reskilling, upskilling, and preparing for a future with AI; alongside a national vision for using and working with AI.  Comprehensive training programs in areas like data analysis, AI literacy, and creative critical thinking could be useful. Across sector verticals, there is also a need for re-skilling and upskilling in areas where human work is still indispensable – creativity, idea generation and IP being central.

Animation South Africa, for example, advocates for greater focus on the IP side of animation work i.e. story and content development, while allowing for the more boring or labor-intensive work (such as editing, rotoscoping or rendering) to be done by software and AI.

Preparation will equip South Africans to work alongside AI, not be replaced by it.

We also need more investment in preparedness. The rise of AI presents funding challenges for the CCIs. Investment in research and development is crucial to ensure South Africa remains at the forefront of AI-driven creativity.

We also need to find the right balance between supporting traditional arts education and fostering the skills needed for the AI revolution.

A call to action

As AI redefines the contours of creative industries, there is an urgent need to equip our workforce with the skills and competencies needed to thrive in the digital age. From coding and data analysis to critical thinking and problem-solving, investing in human capital is essential to ensuring that South Africa remains globally competitive and resilient in the face of technological disruption.

South Africa's cultural future is at stake if we do not act. By addressing these challenges – the skills gap, navigating AI's impact, and fostering an environment for innovation – we can ensure our creative sector not only survives but thrives in the age of algorithms.

We can use AI as a tool to amplify South African voices and creativity, not drown them out. The world needs the South African stories, and to ensure they exist, we must guarantee we have the skills and tools to keep weaving them.

This is not just about economic growth; it's about preserving our heritage and ensuring future generations can paint their own masterpieces on the changing canvas of creativity.

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