At many discussion panels about repairing the cultural and creative industries in South Africa, a familiar slogan is echoed: artists should solve their own problems. This seems fitting when one considers that this sector has unique problems understood mainly by those who work in it. It is an atypical sector. And to solve a problem one must involve those directly affected by it.
The reality is different. The sector cannot solve its stunted growth and the other complex problems burdening it on its own. It could mobilise itself better so that the problems are acutely identified. But some of its problems – since democracy in 1994 – demand political will. They are often intertwined with different areas of public policy that the sector has no control over.
The creative and cultural industries are a diverse sector that contributes to South Africa’s cultural identity. They have been defined in government policy documents and reports as areas like the performing arts, craft, film, fine art, music, gaming, museums, libraries, architecture, design and advertising. In 2017, the South African Cultural Observatory reported the sector accounts for almost 7% of employment in the country. Even so, there have been imperatives from various arms of the state for the sector to generate more employment and to function better.
But many of the problems restricting the growth of the sector are not self-inflicted. They are caused and made worse by an economic, political and historical environment that does not enable the sector to grow.
The creative and cultural sector exists in a complex ecology. Its economic environment requires demand for creative and cultural output, be these products or services. For demand to be in place, audiences should be able to afford this output, to access it and to be informed about why it matters to them.
How is demand going to be there if it is not fostered? Demand needs audience development, cultural producers to be encouraged and society to value its cultural material.
And how are potential audiences meant to access culture if they cannot afford its outputs? If the economy is depressed, as it has been for years, there are fewer employment opportunities. With less employment comes reduced disposable income, meaning less spending on cultural goods when they are not viewed as basic needs to be fulfilled. When cultural goods are not treated as a public good, what’s reinforced is that they are only for those who can afford them. And so, no matter how innovative the cultural products or services, the conditions of demand are not solely dependent on the sector. Instead, they relate to the vibrancy of the economy and government approach to economic policy.
It is also a problem when trade and economic policy dictates that, with the exception of film, the small businesses in the sector are taxed at the same level as sectors that do not operate with as much precarity. For instance, for tax purposes it is irrelevant that employment opportunities in the sector are seasonal, based mainly on the patronage of those with disposable income and are adversely affected by other infrastructure-related shortfalls. Those operating in this sector do not have incentives to grow their small businesses, or develop the complexity of their offering, when the rare opportunity of well-paid temporary work comes.
With South African economic policy as it stands, those in the sector are in fact encouraged to work informally and deterred from directly paying tax. Some studies suggest that those self-employed in the sector do not always perceive contributing to tax as beneficial. For the government this means sector activities that are not captured or measurable, a lost economic and data management opportunity.
Since democracy, South Africa’s primary, secondary and higher education curricula have marginalised arts and culture subjects. They compete with science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) for public investment budgets. Yet culture and the arts play a significant role in social and economic development. This is why the educational frameworks of some countries in fact employ STEAM rather than STEM – the ‘A’ is for Arts.
Outside of private schools and magnet schools that focus on developing specialist skills in low-income areas, arts-culture subjects tend to be taught by teachers without technical training, or sometimes no training at all. Not only does this render arts-culture qualifications redundant, because of the absence of nuance, it also means fewer employment opportunities. Reduced employment opportunities are therefore not caused by the creative and cultural sector but by priorities in education policy.
Education policy prioritisation also impacts demand for cultural products and means that the value of cultural work is not recognised by learners – or realised. These learners are potential future producers and consumers of culture whose toil will shape specific areas of society and the economy.
This situation questions the effectiveness of efforts of arts-culture advocacy groups and political institutions to highlight the developmental role of arts and culture through and in education. The sector is still not in a position where it is perceived as providing a public good that is vital for all members of society.
Access to arts and culture also means access to physical and virtual spaces. Networking, which drives the sector, happens in both. Limited investment in transport infrastructure means that only those who travel in their own cars, and not on sometimes-unsafe public transport, can reach spaces with cultural goods and services.
And what are the implications for potential audiences in rural and peri-urban areas? Are these audience development challenges not impacted by policies related to limited rural development, safety and investment in public transport infrastructure? These are not policies the sector can control.
Lastly, the commerce of cultural services and related products has been taking place on digital platforms for well over a decade in other parts of the world. In South Africa, only those who can afford expensive internet connectivity have been able to work this way. This limited connectivity is not a cultural and creative sector invention. It is due to the lack of political will to invest in accessible digital infrastructure which could have multiplier effects on entrepreneurial ventures. The digital divide is caused by communications policies that have not prioritised broad access to technological advancements.
As such, the growth problems of the creative and cultural sector are firmly rooted in South Africa’s development agenda. The sector cannot solve its own problems in isolation from other public policies. Just as personal self-development happens in an enabling environment, sector development is possible in a supportive public policy space.
Enabling growth will need collaboration between government and the sector rather than the sector on its own.