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We have a lot to learn from the fine arts sector that has powered ahead without waiting for intervention, where there’s confidence about the future, writes Saki Zamxaka

South Africa’s GDP in 1994 was around $153 billion and roughly $420 billion in 2019. GDP per capita was around $3 600 in 1994 and roughly $7 000 in 2019. If you had invested $3 600 over a 25-year period, the growth would have been about 2.8% compounded annually to reach about $7 100. The inflation target by the South African Reserve Bank is currently a band of 3% to 6%. This target didn’t exist in 1994, but even at the lower band of inflation target, 3%, this GDP per capita growth would have been lower than inflation. Unemployment is almost at 34%, and about 29 million vulnerable South Africans are covered by various forms of social security from the government.

If you look at overall performance of the economy, in essence, it has been an incremental growth, given how the economy has generally been structured. The services sector—retail, financial services, and hospitality—has grown significantly, with very little industrial activity.

A reflection on South Africa’s economy since 1994 brings two thoughts to mind. One is a quote by William Watt: “Do not put your faith in what statistics say until you carefully considered what they do not say.” The second comes from a book I read about the evolution of the central banking system in the world called, ‘The Lords of Finance’. The book mainly concludes that the role of leaders of central banks is to create confidence about the future.

We have seen stats about how the economy has grown from 1994 to date amid challenges of unemployment and inequality. But do these numbers show us how much we have progressed or not as a society? How have the dreams of the majority of South Africans changed over the years? How has day-to-day life been impacted? Do we have confidence about the future in our individual capacities and about the country?

A South African artist named Dumile Feni was forced to leave the country in 1968 due to apartheid, moving to London and later New York. He died in 1991, at the dawn of our democracy. He had several exhibitions around the world and not much has been recorded of what the artworks were being sold for prior to his death. Various weekend publications of April 2015 reported that a Dumile Feni sculpture titled, ‘Prisoner’, had sold for R6 million, which was one of the highest publicly recorded prices for a sculpture by a South African artist. The South African Cultural Observatory estimated that the arts sector contributed about 3% to South Africa’s GDP.

The arts are but one sector you can focus on and attempt to disaggregate what the numbers do not say, the human stories, and confidence about the future. Contemporary African art has been doing well in auctions locally and globally, with Basquiat in the US the highest selling artist with a record $110 million in 2017. Marlene Dumas, a South African artist, sold a piece for $6.3 million in 2008 via Sotheby’s.

The cultural and creative industries have certainly benefited in the post 1994 era, with the openness internally and to the rest of the world. The discourse about growth and development in the economy has largely been dominated by what the government has or has not done. The creative industries have largely grown with very little government intervention. Government leaders are elected into positions with a sense of hope that they deliver a better life for all, and create confidence about the future. We can agree that South Africans currently do not seem to have much confidence about the near future, that the economy will grow at the levels it needs to create employment—6% and above. Even the government leaders themselves do not believe they have the capacity to deliver this growth.

Is there something to learn from the creative industries? I believe so. South Africa’s capital markets are amongst the top 20 in the world, according to the World Economic Forum. Regulation of this sector is by the government, but operations—strategy, day-to-day decisions—are the domain of private companies, corporates, and various other entities largely led by white men. Are they held accountable for the decisions they make or not make that could contribute to development of South Africa? The world has been moving to what has come to be called ESG (Environment, Social, and Sustainability). Much has been achieved in South Africa in this sector, with the exception of Sustainability. Short-term profits still drive much of what corporate does in South Africa than long-term sustainability.

In 2002, in an SA2020 scenario planning exercise about South Africa’s possible futures, Professor Sampie Terreblanche made an analogy about South Africa’s economy. At the time, the economy of South Africa was charactirised as two economies—one that is modern, growing, and skilled, and the other poor—unemployable and living in the third world. Prof Terreblanche then says the policies at the time were based on a typical trickle down approach, that the first economy must grow to lift the second economy. The first economy basically being the golden goose. He concluded that the challenge was that the golden goose keeps faking death or near death.

More than twenty years later, I don’t think this faking of death by the golden goose has changed. The time we saw significant leadership from the private sector about growth was when South Africa for the first time faced the possibility of its sovereign debt rating downgraded. Other than that, the main contribution by business are complaints about what is not being done for them to invest, while they continue their practices that are non-competitive.

We have a lot to learn from the fine arts sector that has powered ahead without waiting for intervention, where there’s confidence about the future. Artists are managing themselves, marketing outside of restrictive gallery systems. 

Saki Zamxaka is the CEO of the Gauteng Enterprise Propeller (GEP).

By Editor