Unleashing potential: Cultural entrepreneurship in South Africa 


In 2018, a panel of leading arts and culture scholars and practitioners, including Sharlene Khan, Nontobeko Ntombela, Nomusa Makhubu, Same Mdluli, Nkule Mabaso, and Zodwa Skeyi-Tutani, gathered for the ART ON OUR MIND creative dialogue panel. They delved into their experiences as curators, addressing questions about their journeys, contributions, challenges and desired alternatives.

Ultimately, what discussions such as this highlight is that cultural entrepreneurship in South Africa holds the potential to transform cities, boost tourism, and stimulate the economy. It’s a phenomenon that has been repeated over and over again in cities across the globe. Examples include Hollywood and its vibrant film industry which has not only shaped global culture but draws in a regular stream of tourists who want a taste of what they see on the big screen. Or the Hallyu Wave, which is the dramatic rise of South Korean culture, media and entertainment. Paris attracts millions each year to its galleries and museums. Milan, recognised as one of the fashion capitals of the world, brings in about 70 million euros in sales across restaurants, transportation, hotels and other services during Milan Fashion Week. 

While pursuing creative passions is essential, the journey to a successful career is laden with challenges. The South African government, recognizing this, has launched the Cultural and Creative Industries (CCI) Masterplan. This strategic initiative aims to foster inclusive growth, economic security, social protection, and personal development in the creative sector, ultimately eradicating poverty and inequality.

The Masterplan’s five pillars — supply-side interventions, production infrastructure, market efficiencies, demand infrastructure, and demand-side interventions — provide a comprehensive framework for a globally competitive and sustainable creative industry. It emphasizes conducive environments, partnerships, and transformation to develop South Africa’s talent.

Partnerships between Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) and the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture (DSAC) showcase the integration of resources through programs like the Mzansi Golden Economy (MGE). This approach fosters a thriving creative ecosystem and underscores the importance of collaboration.

Becoming a cultural entrepreneur begins with a dream, nurtured by talent and fueled by education and practical experience. Success hinges on factors such as honing one’s talent, persevering in the face of closed doors, mastering the right timing, acquiring business knowledge, and establishing networks and partnerships.

Noteworthy success stories, like Laduma Ngxokolo’s MaXhosa brand, Xabiso Vili’s digital preservation of South African heritage, and Dipopaai Studios’ animation storytelling, inspire others. These entrepreneurs break barriers, demonstrating that creativity knows no geographical bounds.

The MaXhosa brand, for example, now employs over 50 people and includes a homeware brand in addition to the successful fashion label. 

Vili, who is a leading poet and new media artist, has continued to produce work that preserves South African history and heritage in the context of the digital age, which ideally creates global interest in South Africa. 

Kearatwa Sedidi and Sithembiso Mpehle created Dipopaai Studios, through which they use animation to tell African stories. In 2022, the Dipopaai team visited Ipeleng Primary School in Soweto, all in the name of their Young Animators Programme to cultivate interest in the animation industry by providing information that is ordinarily not easily available to them.  

The Thomarts Gallery, which is run by Nkgadi Sheena-Leigh Ngulube and Nkosinathi Thomas Ngulube, works especially to bring rural artists into the South African art world. They have launched COLLABORUPTS – “a special art project that aims to build a long-term employment benefit to a minimum of 10 young and old creatives on wood, pottery, African mats, beadworks, etc. based in Limpopo and Mpumalanga.” These are the kinds of artists who are oftentimes excluded from the creative sector because they are farther from cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, which are the two main cultural hubs. 

Recognising the need for tangible support, institutions have launched programs to nurture cultural entrepreneurs. The Goethe-Institut’s Cav’ Pusha Entrepreneurship Training Programme, the British Council’s Innovation for African Universities (IAU) and their Creative Economy platform, and the Grindstone Accelerator exemplify efforts to build networks, provide mentorship, and offer funding avenues.

An additional support mechanism comes in the form of Creation Africa: South Africa, Lesotho and Malawi. This new project was launched by the French government, through the French Embassy in South Africa and the Institut Français d’Afrique du Sud (IFAS) / French Institute of South Africa. It combines the traditional business incubation model with cultural industry expertise and is aimed at ensuring that twelve businesses or start-ups in the cultural and creative industries receive the guidance required to accelerate their businesses and ensure successful futures. 

We look forward to telling the success stories of these entrepreneurs, and seeing local and international support of their businesses through cultural engagement and buying their works or utilising their services. 

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