South African Cultural Observatory

The cultural weight of democratic destiny: Building a creative, moving Mzansi

BY Unathi Lutshaba 17.06.24

THIRTY years into our democracy, South Africa stands at a crossroads. While our democratic institutions are robust, the spirit of democracy—particularly among our youth—is waning. Disillusionment with service delivery is a symptom of a deeper issue: a disconnect between our constitutional ideals and lived reality.

Nurturing a thriving culture of democracy is key to bridging this gap. It's about more than just service delivery; it's about harnessing our rich history, founding documents – such as the Freedom Charter and Constitution – and viable policy framework to encourage and galvanize around a shared sense of purpose - one that resonates especially with the youth who will inherit our nation.

This is where culture becomes a powerful tool. The collective joy we experience as the Springboks score, the pride we feel as Tyla triumphs at the Grammys, and the laughter we share with Trevor Noah's insightful humour all speak to the unifying power of art and sport. By intentionally channelling this passion, we can prompt action that drives societal progress and strengthens our democracy.

To do this, we must cultivate a culture of democracy in our everyday lives, a responsibility enshrined in our civic duty. We must leverage existing policy tools to build an active pro-democracy, socially just ecosystem that serves all, especially our youth.

Cultural policy is a critical lever in this endeavour. For nearly a decade of our 30 years of democracy, the South African Cultural Observatory (SACO) has been working to review, document, and enhance this policy landscape.

We strive to leverage the impact of sports, arts, culture, and heritage to drive social and economic transformation and ultimately strengthen our democracy – and by extension the youth that will take it forward.

Policy pathways elevating culture, democratic project

From the 1996 White Paper on Arts and Culture to the Mzansi Golden Economy initiative and with it, the establishment of SACO in 2015, South Africa has made significant strides in creating a policy environment that recognizes the vital role of the cultural and creative industries (CCIs). These milestones are mapped here.

In the immediate aftermath of our democratic transition, the then Department of Arts, Culture, Science, and Technology (DACST) aimed to create a more inclusive and dynamic notion of arts, culture, and heritage. This vision was integral to our nation-building and social development.

The 1996 White Paper on Arts and Culture, developed through extensive consultations and collaborations across public, private, and civic sectors, was a product of this forward-thinking outlook, according to leading SA cultural policy critic, Mike van Graan. The White Paper emphasized the need for cultural institutions to become more commercially driven and organized along business lines.

A significant milestone was the Cultural Industries Growth Strategy (CIGS) initiated in 1997, promoting dialogue within government structures, particularly between the departments of trade and industry and arts and culture.

The Creative South Africa report (1998), influenced by international practices, recommended forming a public-private structure to develop cultural industries. Although this proposal wasn’t fully realized, parts of the programme were retained within the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), which continued to link CCIs with mainstream industrial policy and incentives.

UNESCO’s Cultural Statistical Framework (2009) and pilot mapping studies of the creative industries in the Western Cape and Gauteng, supported by the British Council, further propelled the sector. Much of this baseline work was augmented in the Mzansi Golden Economy (MGE) initiative, announced in 2011, marked a comprehensive approach to the creative economy, aligning it with the industrial economy and stressing its potential for meaningful employment creation. A vibrant creative economy it was stressed would contribute to meaningful employment creation, including among women and youth (Kaiser and Kea 2013).  In 2013 DAC commissioned the first national mapping study of the CCIs by a commercial research company Plus94.

The MGE also made provision for the establishment of the SACO, which was initiated in 2015 hosted by Nelson Mandela University in partnership with Rhodes University and the University of Fort Hare. Since then, the SACO has:

  • Produced 2 biannual Economic Mapping Studies which demonstrate the value of our national creative economy, which contributes almost 3% of the economy GDP and creates 1 million jobs.
  • Worked with international organisations such as UNCTAD, UNESCO, OECD, GIZ, British Council, SiNCA, Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST), among others.
  • Produced over 300 research outputs since 2016 and conducted 63 dissemination workshops and 28 capacity building workshops since 2016 sharing the SACO’s work in 9 provinces and reaching tens of thousands of people.
  • Developed 6 frameworks on cultural seasons, diplomacy, measuring cultural employment, cultural statistics, monitoring and evaluation of publicly funded arts, culture and heritage
  • Touched the lives of 899 young creatives during the COVID-19 crisis as part of the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme (PESP).

Our research at SACO has also consistently shown the economic and social contributions of the CCIs, advocating for policies that support their growth and development.

In recent years, SACO’s policy-oriented research has grown significantly. With the restructuring of DAC into the Department of Sports, Arts, and Culture (DSAC) in 2022, the scope of the Observatory’s research interests has widened to include social cohesion driving sport. Emphasizing youth, SACO's 2023 report on Precarity and Social Security in the CCIs outlined policy options for funding the creative sector, including a proposed government-backed 'culture pass' for young adults and a state-run digital platform to reduce data costs for young creatives.

The newly released SACO report on the BRICS alliance’s implications for South Africa’s creative economy recommended strengthening the South African BRICS Youth Association (SABYC) and developing a CCI division. It also proposed a dedicated digital platform for exchanging ideas and showcasing artworks among BRICS countries, empowering young local creative fashion designers.

Recent UN trade data reveals that exports of creative goods have surged by over 350% in the last two decades, with creative services expanding 2.8 times in the previous decade (UNCTAD 2024; Policy Circle 2024). Women comprise up to half of the global workforce in this sector, which employs more people aged 15-29 than any other industry (UNESCO 2022).

This youth-driven dimension of the creative economy is particularly crucial in developing societies like ours, where job opportunities can be scarce.

Creativity’s input into democratic action on wide-ranging and reaching. Over the past 30 years the cultural and creative industries (CCIs) have had a profound impact on our nation's growth, social cohesion, and democratic values. Our nation's creative industries not only generate income and employment but also support innovation and social cohesion, reinforcing the very fabric of our democracy.

Shaping a creative, democratic Mzansi

As we celebrate 30 years of freedom, SACO envisions a future where our youth are empowered, our cultural diversity is celebrated, and our democratic values are strengthened through the power of creativity.

Investing in the cultural and creative industries is not just an economic imperative; it is a democratic one. By supporting the growth and development of these industries, we are creating opportunities for young people to express themselves, be heard, and to shape the future of our nation. We are building a society that values creativity, innovation, and diversity – a society that is more resilient, more inclusive, and more democratic.

SACO aims to continue shaping the creative economy, expanding access and employment for young people and creatives from diverse backgrounds. This vision aligns with our democratic ideals, underscoring the importance of cultural and creative industries in our national development agenda.

Creativity and democracy are intricately linked. A vibrant creative economy fuels innovation and economic growth while fostering an open, inclusive, and dynamic society essential for a thriving democracy. As we celebrate thirty years of freedom, let us also celebrate the creative spirit that unites us in our diversity, enriching our shared future, and leading to a more democratic, creative, and moving Mzansi.


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