My life in Craft in South Africa

This blog has been written at a very difficult economic time in South Africa. Every economist is saying the same thing; South Africa is simply not sustainable at the current trajectory. To simplify it to a level that I can understand it:

  • More people receive government grants that work and pay tax.
  • The tax revenues are declining year on year, because of the declining capacity at SARS because of the corruption
  • The sectors most affected by job losses over the past 10 years are; Mining and manufacturing.
  • Skills levels in these and other sectors have been all but depleted. The National Qualifications Framework has destroyed the level of skills in the workplace, particularly in the sectors mentioned
  • We are now a gross importer of goods, for which we produced and exported the raw materials. (e.g. We export hides and import shoes)

Short of a miracle; what can be done to remedy this dire situation?

The current flavor of the day in South African government job creations circles, seems to be the notion of the forth Industrial revolution. How can we ever think of having a forth when we never had the first? It is the opinion of the author that there are no short cuts, that the only jobs that will created in the next decade will come from the Small Business sector.

To attempt to explain what it is and how I got here, here’s a short summary of who I am and what gets me up in the morning and what keeps me awake.

I was born in 1959. I grew up in Brixton, Johannesburg, a poor to middle class suburb. My father was an Interior Decorator, not what we have today, he was an artisan. He worked for Herbert Evans, where he did an apprenticeship to paint, hand wall paper, paint techniques, gold leaf gilding, etc. Until his death a few years ago the work he was most proud of was the Foyer and Ball Room of the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg. From a very early age, I went with him to jobs, so my skills in making and decorating probably started around 7 years old. I remember clearly riding on the trolley bus to decorate The Castle in Highland Road, Kensington. His tool box, a  pristine white dust jacket and hair dressed in Brylcream, he was a proud man and he was looked up to for his talents and skills.

When it came to high school, I was shipped off to John Orr Technical High school to get a trade. We were taught every trade skill in Standards 6 and 7 (Grades 8 and 9). Blacksmithing, fitting and turning, carpentry, cabinet making, sheet metal work, motor mechanics, electrical and plumbing. Grade 10, we had to specialize and I did fitting and turning. I could not see myself standing in front of a lathe for the rest of my life, my creative side was calling and I left John Orr to go to a school that had a good art department. At the time the concept of design had not yet become known in South Africa.

After the obligatory national service, I went into display art at A&D Spitz Shoes.  I then went into the wine industry merchandising and the marketing. My last job in this sector was as group brand manager for the Import Division of Gilbeys. I then went into below the line advertising; McCanns, Grey, Ogilvy. It is here where my strategic side blossomed. At the age of 34 I was all but burned out. I gave this up to go to pot.

All through my career thus far I had been a very keen potter (ceramics). I practiced ceramics and taught part-time for 22 years. So it was the natural thing for me to start a pottery studio / factory. Within a few months I exhibited at the annual SARCDA Trade show with a few other potters under the banner of “The Guild”. This was the start of my career as a commercial potter / craftsman. Eventually I did a large order with a friend for a large department store, which not only killed my passion, but also my cash flow and marriage.

Around this I joined up with partners to start the First Homeware store in South Africa, called Brighthouse.  This was 1994, the time of the time of the change of government in South Africa as well as the start of the Internet. Later, with the support of the Liberty Life foundation, I started an initiative which was called “Buy Africa”. I traveled the country to find anyone who was making so called craft products. At the height of Buy Africa, we had 1500 artists, craftsmen, small and medium factories on the online database. Regrettably this intuitive was doomed to fail as the conflict between the white collars and blue collars. Suffice to say that at this stage Art, Design, Craft, Production, Trade, and Culture were all starting to play out through the new Department of Art, Culture, Science and Technology.

Over the last 24 years, through the process of ACTAG (Arts and Culture Task Group), the formation of the various Standards generating bodies in the Seta system, Create SA and the Cultural Industries Growth Strategy I have been a staunch advocate for the Craftsman, Artisan and now the Makers. The problem is that in South Africa this sector knows as Craft has been allowed to parasitized by the Art sector.

Today little or no meaningful job creation comes from the ANC government. This is because the policy that is followed by The DTI and Department of Small Business is based on the Cultural Industries growth strategy which is 100% focused on The Arts. Secondly this and the other stated initiatives were never written up as a White Paper. The reason is that DAC is and has been wrong in their understanding on what we refer to as the Creative Manufacturing Sector.

The problem lies at the many levels of the Art vs. craft debate. Because of this we don’t use the term craft unless it is really necessary. If you are living in Polokwane in a rural African village, then you might see craft as something done by the old ladies, which would include beadwork, pottery and basketry. The men would do wood carving. These products would be used for utilitarian or ceremonial purposes. The old pieces would be sold as collectable curios. The new tribal pieces would be sold at the local market to traders and these would be sold to tourists as souvenirs in the urban centers.

If you are an affluent urban person who either personally collects art or have an Interior Designer to procure pieces to decorate your home, office or other commercial venues, you see craft as something a whole lot more exclusive. Something where uniqueness, the name of the creator, the technique, subject matter or some X factor would dictate the high price you might pay for such a piece. These pieces would typically be seen at galleries, exhibitions or even museums. This might be referred to as Studio Craft or Craft Art.

The middle of the road is where one visits a décor or homeware store, something like: Mr. Price Home or @Home. Here you would see products that have been made from the same materials and techniques as Craft Art, except that it would be made in volume, more often than not, by artisans in factories overseas. The reason for this reliance on imported goods is that South Africa simply does not make enough of these products. I have heard it said that South Africa’s capacity in this sector all worked together, they could not stock all Mr. Price’s 937 store for one day.

So which sector is right for South Africa? 1. Is it the Cultural sector? 2. Is it the Art sector? 3. Or is it what we call the Creative Manufacturing sector?

  1. Cultural Sector. Products made by rural people using available materials, techniques and tools handed down over the millennia. The resultant products depict the colours, shapes, textures, patterns and themes of their Tribe, clan and or family. They are sold wither into the curio (Collectables), Souvenir (Travel memento’s) markets. Recently, a lot of development has been done in using the features and capacity to make tribal style decor and homewares. This sector has potential but it is small as the market for such products is not large at the moment as it is not a décor or fashion trend at the moment.
  2. Craft Art. These low volume, high value products have a large following in the UK, because of the work done by the Crafts Council since 1971. Extracted from their website:

In 2011, its 40th anniversary year, over 400,000 visitors saw its five temporary exhibitions, 27,000 people attended its craft fairs, and over 7,000 children and young people participated in its nationwide initiatives.

Comment on the excerpt; The market for Art has not been developed in South Africa.  Art is only taught in the art class. The future market for art is not developed at schools. Sport dominates art, drama, music, etc. The result is we do not have a population who appreciates the finer things in life. This we believe is a huge problem as it does nothing to build a market for anything that involves the local, or national cultural or creative identity. This not only negatively affects the lack of cultural identity, but makes us vulnerable to global brands and products. Not buying the wares of our local Craft Artists is the least of the problem. Most SA people are not going to ever buy a Gregor Jenkins table, for either the fact that they don’t appreciate high design, but because of the abject poverty in South Africa. So while The DTI, DAC and Dept Small Business sponsor this sector through the likes of the Design Indaba, then the sector has little or no future.

  1. Creative Manufacturing Sector. This sector exists by many other names: Handicraft, The Artisanal Sector, Village Based production and Craftsmen and women. The products can be seen on the shelves of every décor, homeware and gift store in South Africa. Decorex, SARCDA and Homemakers Fair, however, few are made in South Africa. On our website we showcase these important people. Whether they make furniture, jewellery, clothing, craft beers, confectionary, they create not only jobs, but products. From these, some might even become brands; like Carol Boyes. Regrettably, I struggle to think of others.

The following is quoted from a the International Trade Centre’s Geneva’s Guide “Export Guide to Handicrafts”.

“In the Industrialized countries handicrafts are popularly conceived by many as ethnic products with little utilitarian value. They are categorized as curio, tourist souvenirs or as Items of artistic Interest, but seldom as article for daily use. This is a long way from the traditions of their countries of origin where handicrafts have evolved over centuries for very practical ends.

When handicrafts are marketed as Items with functional uses letting into people’s life-styles -at home at work at leisure etc – their narrow restricted Image immediately disappears. Their ethnic/cultural aspect is toned down giving way to a more utilitarian Image. The customer can then regard crafts In terms of floor coverings wall hangings room dividers kitchen or table Items, etc. “.

Our wish is that this government takes job creation seriously; in fact jobs are the most important challenge in this country. Once people are working, making products, making money, exporting and building brands, and then we can engage with more luxurious pursuits. In the mean time, if you have a shop, stock as much local product as possible. Use Makesa to help you source product. Work with Makers to develop products that suit you market.

Talk to us. Artisans keep the country grounded and productive, they need recognition and support


Add a comment

  • No comments yet.
  • chat
    Add a comment