'There is a Strong Need to Develop New Narratives that are African Specific'



Avril Joffe heads the Cultural Policy and Management Department at the Wits School of Arts, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. In an interview with ifa, she explores whether COVID-19's profound impact on Cultural and Creative industries across the African continent is also an opportunity for reinvigoration.

 

Photo: Kirstin Wilson via Unsplash

ifa: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was considerable hype around African cultural and creative industries (CCIs). What kind of potential was envisaged for and through the sector?

Avril Joffe: The vision was that CCIs would generally provide stimulus for development at all levels: human, social, and economic. In particular, it was suggested that CCIs – labelled the 'new gold', 'new money', and 'sleeping giant' – could lift the continent out of unemployment and poverty.

UN agencies and international NGOs have increasingly referred to the development potential of Africa's CCIs in their reports, while international agencies present in Africa such as British Council and the Goethe Institute promote cultural entrepreneurship. Much of this attention speaks to the potential monetisation and market creation of the CCIs.

'Policy makers need to understand the myriad of mutual, interdependent values that culture creates'

ifa: Nevertheless, employment in Africa's cultural goods sector is estimated at half a million people across the continent. That's just 0.0004 percent of the African population. How realistic are CCI employment opportunities at scale?

Joffe: This figure is not surprising, given that African CCIs are typically informal, small-scale operations, and consequently fall 'under the radar' of any international measurement systems. CCI employment opportunities at a meaningful scale are unrealistic to envision, but income-generating opportunities are more realistic.
Individual African governments have revisited their cultural policies to incorporate CCIs, or created new strategy documents to develop cultural sectors. South Africa has highlighted the role of CCIs within cultural ecology, digital media and local economic development. Nigeria has begun to support its fast-growing film industry, recognizing its Gross Domestic Product contribution of 2.3 percent, alongside that of the music industry of 9 percent. Countries across the continent, including Ghana, Kenya, and Cameroon are now looking to the 'Nollywood' model of rapid production and home consumption of local movies.

ifa: Cultural activity always faces competing perceptions and definitions: is it the means of profitable business, or a non-profit activity related to self-expression, identity, and something essentially human? How do these dilemmas play out in Africa?

Joffe: These are critical and much-debated dilemmas. Policy makers need to understand the myriad of mutual, interdependent values that culture creates. These include those that speak to the human condition like self-esteem, identity and self-expression, to society at large comprising community, social inclusion, education and recreation and finally to the economy concerning values in relation to jobs, income and exports. Each of these require requisite financing, from grants to corporate social investment to seed capital and equity financing respectively.

'Reducing the CCIs to entertainment completely undermines the role that culture and the arts play in our society'

ifa: Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Cote d'Ivoire, Kenya, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Zimbabwe were among the few African countries which offered emergency artist relief when the pandemic hit. For some, this was the first-ever targeted funding for the sector. In those instances, why do you think the COVID-19 crisis lifted CCIs out of the shadows?

Joffe: This is a fascinating finding and one that I'm yet to investigate in depth. As an organized grouping in society, it seems the sector was able to make governments recognize the hardships that cultural practitioners were facing. In normal times, there is broad acceptance that governments do not set aside dedicated funds for the sector, neither directly nor through arm's length institutions such as national arts councils. In many countries, artists and cultural professionals rely entirely on international funding for their work. Many are now hoping this development during the pandemic can transform into regular budgeting for the sector.

ifa: Most of these relief measures favoured, or were exclusive to, particular groups or types of practice. Can you give some examples of these limitations? How do they reflect wider understanding of CCIs?

Joffe: Some relief measures only covered people already receiving intellectual property earnings, or those with a cancelled performance contract. In Kenya, financial support was only extended to artists, actors and musicians who continued to entertain through the pandemic on TV, radio, or the internet. Nigerian support benefited the commercial creative sector, leaving out the rest of the cultural eco system.

Such restrictions highlighted the economic reductionism at the heart of governments' view of CCIs. Reducing the CCIs to entertainment completely undermines the role that culture and the arts play in our society and displays a gross lack of understanding in economic and financial logic.

'Support those practices and expressions that are rooted in local traditions'

ifa: You remark on the urban concentration of cultural practice in Africa, but also the deep and delicate locality of cultural expression. How can CCI's foster more local, sustainable practice beyond the metropolis?

Joffe: Creatives enjoy contact with other creatives, as well as cultural infrastructure like live venues, concert halls, galleries and hubs. Therefore, it is not surprising that CCIs tend to agglomerate in cities. However, cultural practice and cultural expressions are often unique in rural and remote areas. We need public policy and its instruments, that is funding, financing and human resourcing to uncover what exists and support those practices and expressions that are rooted in local traditions, local communities and particular localities.

ifa: What about colonial legacies?

Joffe: The very fact that we use concepts such as CCIs suggests that many African governments, especially those previously colonised by the British, have been influenced by developments in the United Kingdom. Much work in francophone Africa is connected to the European Union, le Francophonie, and France itself.

There is a strong need to develop new narratives that are African specific, which includes language, heritage, tradition, ceremony, indigenous knowledge, artistic disciplines, cultural and creative industries and sees them holistically. This terminology is not purely semantic: it seeks to re-establish the culture's organic meaning in the everyday lives of African people, its social significance in community cohesion, and indeed its moral weight.

'The post-pandemic context has to yield a "new deal".'

ifa: Given COVID-19's devastating impact on health, education, and gender equity, and with a generalized deficiency of state support systems, how should we reappraise CCIs development pathways in the pandemic, and post-pandemic, context?

Joffe: The pandemic context has required an imaginative and creative response that worked for some, but for many, such as live music practitioners, the future looks bleak. The post-pandemic context has to yield a 'new deal'. Together, civil society, academics, public intellectuals, and governments need to find ways to reimagine a viable system to support the public value, the instrumental value, and the intrinsic value of the whole CCI system. This means a combination of public, private and non-governmental initiatives – all supported by a fundamental system and strong social pact that includes a basic income and social protection for all, and a public employment program targeted to the needs of the whole cultural eco system.

ifa: How can culture and artistic practices help strengthening capacities to become more resilient to situations of crises? What cultural expressions particularly stand out to you as sources of solace and support during the pandemic?

Joffe: Each of us is unique and responds differently to cultural expressions. For some, it is stories, for others music, for others dance, and for others still it is witnessing a ritual, a tradition that speaks back to who we are in community, our identity, our humanity. I personally found solace listening to individual signers, and watching dance in unusual spaces. As a dancer myself, the ability and resilience of the human body and its ability to move magically in space, enlivening the music, was my greatest joy during this time.

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