African Creative Economy Conference

Christiaan de Beukelaer  Cultural Diversity has many faces, and so does the creative economy. The 3rd African Creative Economy Conference, organized in Cape Town by Arterial Network from 6-9 October is exemplary of this. Over 300 delegates from nearly all African countries and many from further afield gathered at the majestic city hall to debate, network, and continue cooperation on the numerous initiatives throughout the continent.

Previous editions of the conference took place in Nairobi (2011) and Dakar (2012). This year’s program was packed with talks from stakeholders in the cultural sector from the continent and beyond. Many ideas about the future of cultural life in Africa were shared. Not in the least place by Mike van Graan, who continues to ask questions that spur critical optimism about the future of both culture and development. The moments at the conference that arguably gained most attention, however, were the testimonies of people who set up amazing initiatives and built up their activities with vision and engagement.

Siphiwe Ngwenya is one of them. He runs the Maboneng Township Arts Experience in three townships throughout the country: Gugulethu in Cape Town, Alexandra in Johannesburg, and Madadeni in KwaZulu-Natal. The main aim of this initiative, Maboneng meaning “Place of Light,” is to transform homes of artists into galleries throughout these townships, working with the surrounding communities to make this happen. Existing shops are used to sell entry tickets and “criminals” are recruited to secure bigger events.

To avoid confusion, there is a different project named Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg Central Business District. This is, however, in essence a real estate redevelopment (see the short documentary) project in the CBD that builds on the arts – and the crowd it attracts – to give new life to the largely abandoned industrial buildings in this part of town.

On another note, Suzanne Owiyo shared her experiences as a musician. Tracing her initial steps into the world of music to her childhood, when she borrowed a guitar with the intention of learning how to play the instrument. This proved however difficult, given the explicit resistance of her father. Suzanne’s dedication turned out to be stronger, though. She made it as a great instrumentalist and singer, thereby increasing, one musician at a time, the share of women who (find the opportunity) to do more than singing alone.

Alongside the packed official program with talks and testimonies, there was of course also much attention for the variety of cultural activities in Cape Town. The African Arts Institute hosted a “Cultural Market” that included concerts at the Mahogany Room, conversations on literature at the Book Lounge the and films at the District 6 Homecoming Centre.

One of the films that were screened is “Le Président” from the Cameroonian director, Jean Pierre Békolo who joined the screening for an introduction and Q&A. While the movie premiered unofficially at FESPACO, the Festival Panafricain de Cinema de Ouagadougou earlier this year, it remains difficult to get hold of this film – particularly in Cameroon, where it has been banned. The film puts forward plenty of questions concerning the succession of a disappeared president who has been in power for decades. Entire generations lived their entire lives without ever having known any other head of state. It is thus no surprise that his disappearance stirs things up. While the story never explicitly mentions Paul Biya, president of Cameroon since 1982, the questions asked clearly concern his lengthy presidency. At the same time, the fictitious character of the movie makes the message equally relevant for other countries where presidents have been in power for longer than I have lived such as Zimbabwe (Mugabe), Angola (dos Santos), Uganda (Museveni), and Burkina Faso (Compaore). Speaking of the African Creative Economy, the Kenyan video-on-demand platform now hosts the movie for a global audience.

Clearly, there are many successes. Yet the downsides should not be underestimated. In spite of economic growth in many African countries, there is uncertainty and opacity concerning the extent to which this growth translates into improved livelihoods for those Africans who still live on less than US$1.25 a day. There is ample reason for optimism, but there is equally reason for caution. Moreover, the creative economy is not coterminous with the whole of the cultural life of the continent, as many activities are at odds with this largely economistic logic. Nor is this sector, and the high hopes vested in it, a panacea for the socio-economic issues that unfortunately persist.

In my own contribution to the conference, I signaled the limited extent to which many people working in culture in Burkina Faso and Ghana identify their activities with cultural and creative industries. While there is much attention to the idea of the Cultural or Creative Industries, there is relatively little engagement with the actual meaning of that term in different contexts. As a result, it could be interesting to foster greater debate on the kind of cultural sector that is wanted prior to supporting the “African Creative Economy.” There are many ways to link culture and economy, of which Maaya Entrepreneurship practiced by Mamou Daffé through the Festival au Niger in Mali is a great example. Yet, there is disproportionally little engagement with such initiatives when it comes to policy development.

Luckily, the next African Creative Economy Conference will reconvene and discuss how people work. How they engage with culture, relate to audiences and access markets. That is at least what Aadel Essaadani, the newly elected chairperson promised us. For indeed, as much as there is talk about what, whom, and why, the question remains: how do they make the cultural sector work and what can be learned from each other?

Barely one week after the end of the 2013 conference, the momentum is rising for the 2014 African Creative Economy Conference. Pretty much all details are yet to be disclosed, but the most important decision is made: we will meet again next year in Morocco.

Christiaan De Beukelaer is a PhD researcher and teaching assistant at the Institute of Communications Studies, University of Leeds. His research primarily focuses on the role of culture and cultural industries in international development. He is a member of the U40 Network “Cultural Diversity 2030,” serves on the Management Committee of ESF-funded COST Action Investigating Cultural Sustainability, and is winner of the 2012 Cultural Policy Research Award, granted by the European Cultural Foundation and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (in collaboration with ENCATC).