South Africa


Arts and culture a multibillion-rand industry, so why are our artists dying in poverty?

Arts and culture a multibillion-rand industry, so why are our artists dying in poverty?
The Cape artists' protest against the National Arts Council and the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture at the Artscape Plaza on 27 March 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

The cultural and creative industries bring significant value to the South African economy, but the sector remains fragile and its potential to unlock lasting positive change in society leaves much to be desired.

Let there be no doubt: South Africa’s cultural and creative industries (CCI) pack some impressive economic punch.

In a 2022 report, the South African Cultural Observatory (Saco) put the gross value added (GVA) of CCIs at about R161-billion in 2020 (its annual contribution to gross domestic product is around R90-billion.) That represents around 3% of total economic production in South Africa that year, putting it almost on par with the agricultural sector.

Why then do stories abound of local, and by all accounts, successful celebrities – think Allen Booi, Mary Twala and Shaleen Surtie-Richards – dying in poverty?

The South African Guild of Actors (Saga) is among those who point a finger to systemic cracks in the industry, citing, among other factors, the lack of labour protections for many creatives. Most of the one million jobs the CCI creates – roughly 6% of all jobs in South Africa – are informal and freelance in nature, says a 2022 Saco mapping study.

As such, the sector is negatively affected by a variety of fragilities, and the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated that it doesn’t respond well enough to external shocks.

A Saco survey found that only 19% of respondents said that they could continue with 60% or more of their normal business activities in 2020. Unlike some other sectors of the economy, creatives were less able to take their business online.

As a result, CCI’s direct contribution to GDP is said to have halved in 2020, from R84.3-billion in 2019 to R42.2-billion.

A little bit of systems thinking is needed

A report by Africa No Filter shows that while many people think that arts and culture are important parts of society, very few actually economically participate in, and support, the sector or regard it as a viable livelihood.

These problems are not of the industry’s own making. It is hamstrung by historical and structural legacies – too many people can’t afford books and music subscriptions, for instance.

“For demand to be in place, audiences need to be able to afford this output, to access it and to be informed about why it matters to them,” Akhona Ndzuta of the University of South Africa points out.

Addressing the challenges likewise requires interventions beyond the scope of the CCI. Instead, a systems approach that creates a broader understanding of how the many parts of a society and the CCI overlap and interact is required.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Report offers insight on the impact of Covid-19 on arts and the creative economy

The truth is that no one intervention is likely to be a silver bullet here. Instead, a variety of mutually reinforcing interventions from a multisector approach that brings together ground-up lived experience of artists, guilds and associations, the audiences and participants, along with the policymakers, funders and national institutes for the arts and culture sector.

To build the industry and its people into a stronger and more resilient force in the economy – and indeed in society – is necessary and worth all our whiles.

As a starting point, we need to invest heavily in entrepreneurial skills for the creative industries. The Cape Town Creative Academy offers a Business Acumen for Artists short course, while Henley Business School offers a “creative MBA” and scholarships for creatives.

These initiatives and others are examples in giving people the basic skills they may need to manage the business side of their work and we need more of them.

As Basa award-winning artist and entrepreneur Mariapaola McGurk comments, “the knowledge gained (from my MBA) is already benefiting my approach to business and strategy. I am hoping this has a direct impact on expanding our market and offering creative solutions that positively impact the arts, to new and untapped clients.”

Steps also need to be taken to dismantle barriers at a systems level to allow the creative industries to flourish. Some ideas here could include that the CCI, along with input from audiences, mobilise more comprehensively to enhance collective agency and effectiveness for the industry with a range of advocacy strategies.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Arts festivals: A uniting force for families and a boost for the nation’s economy

For example, when artists in the US in the early part of the last century showed solidarity with each other and the labour movement, they were able to win federal patronage. 

If valued appropriately in line with the Saco estimations as mentioned before, policymakers, funders and national institutes might recognise investing in the cultural sector as an opportunity for encouraging new trends and attitudes – whether it’s enhancing citizen engagement in local politics or bolstering climate action from the grassroots up; activating localised networks of social and human capital to leverage new collaborations and greater community-owned initiatives; or spurring on local economic development by invigorating the quality of a social systems interactivity and exchange.

Which brings us to the role of festivals…

Cultural festivals are another way for the CCI to flex its collective muscle. They are also particularly useful as leverage points for systems-change work where a collective mass of activity and engagement takes place over a short time.

Depending on the theme, orientation and patronage of the festival, the event can be seen as a platform for advocacy, community development and/or upliftment and celebration of marginalised cultures or traditions in any given social setting.

Such events are plentiful in South Africa – about 74 were staged in 2019, before Covid-19 put the brakes on them, says Future Festivals South Africa, a project by King’s College London (UK) and Rhodes University (South Africa). These and other community-based festivals chip in about R86-million to the local economy.

But as a leverage point for the cultural and creative arts as a whole, and for their capacity to change societies, they have been underused.

Atelier Nicosia 2022, the meeting of the Festival Academy (a practice and learning conference for festival managers from across the globe) that took place in Nicosia, Cyprus, in October, emphasised festivals’ role in conflict-affected regions and their invitation to foster dialogue in communities and contested spaces. Among the festival-makers who attended were applicants from Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, Palestine and South Africa.

Festivals, we learnt, can be spaces of inclusion, of reconciliation, of peace-building and seeing how our different narratives are interconnected. They foster a sense of belonging in spaces that may historically have been exclusionary. Festivals can serve as pockets of incredible change at the community, regional, small town and national level.

Take for example the Connections Carnival, an initiative of the Towns Action Network (TAN) of the Western Cape Economic Development Partnership (EDP). Through seven micro grants awarded in 2022, the winners – leading youth-led storytelling and artistic placemaking events in the Eastern Cape, and indigenous learning exchanges in KwaZulu-Natal, among other projects – were enabled to host small cultural events in their hometowns.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Creative skills will be crucial to the future of work

By supporting existing changemakers in small towns to host tangible events that showcase local assets, the hope was to fix the deterioration in service delivery in small towns by “changing people’s attitudes about the places they call home and attracting investment”, says the EDP. Festivals and public events, they add, are known for their capacity to “catalyse changemaking and enable like-minded organisations to partner for greater impact”.

It’s a message all South Africans can take to heart as our national system struggles with an energy crisis and another looming state of disaster, and we think of how best to change the direction in which we are heading.

By thinking more broadly and strategically about how we can build a more resilient CCI, we could not only create economic value but unlock beautiful and transformative systems change in our society as a whole. DM

Fergus Turner serves as senior project manager to the Systems Justice Innovation portfolio at the Bertha Centre at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) where he also co-convenes the Systems Change and Social Impact short course. He holds a Master’s in Inclusive Innovation Studies from the UCT GSB where he focused on action research in the cultural sector and creative economies, with a focus on community-based festivals.


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