A city’s greatest resource, and its reason for being, are its people. Since the industrial revolution, cities began to be seen as “machines for living in” and people were subjugated to technocracy and infrastructure. But as we have seen with recent challenges that come with climate change and conflict, our resilience as people’s tied strongly to our ability to draw on our values, knowledge, wisdoms and creativity, using these in cooperation with others to find meaningful solutions. When cities are forced to come to terms with some drastic change,  to reinvent themselves for the future, or simply to make itself better, its culture, and how it is mobilized, is at the base of the process of transformation. Since the experience of living in and making cities is a cultural one, robust approaches for working with culture are vital for better cities.

This was a key starting point for recent discussions at the University of Cape Town as part of the African Centre for Cities‘ seminar series. This blog piece gives a report of two of these linked events (16 & 17 August 2018) which explore the governance implications of working with culture for city transformation. These builds on an earlier call from March 2019 to further a local cultural policy agenda in South Africa.

Avril Joffe, head of the Cultural Policy and Management School at Wits University, Johannesburg, was the guest speaker on 16 August at the ACC. Besides running the CP&M program, the only one in Africa, Avril is also a prolific researcher who has worked on a range of international and national projects and initiatives. Avril’s talk Inclusive Cultural Governance: Integrating artistic and cultural practices into national urban frameworks laid the groundwork for the discussion on the following day. She provided an encyclopedic overview to issues, locating the interest in culture as a “driver and enabler of sustainable development” in both international and national contexts. Drawing on John Holden’s 2015 proposal to understand culture as an ecology and arguing beyond narrow framings of culture for economic development, Avril argues, that new ways of thinking about culture is needed in the Global South, which responds to its specific dynamics including its “disrupted infrastructure, inequalities and fragmentation, faced paced urbanisation [and the] absence of social citizenship”.
“If culture is treated as an ecology, than the analytical approach becomes one of identifying cultural value by taking into account the multifaceted and pluralistic value of culture beyond as well as including the economic… Culture recovers its organic meaning, its social significance and its moral weight, bringing into play the realm of the cultural system, its creative capacity, its ability to generate new meanings and the social and public goods that its producers as well as – and certainly not ignoring – its economic return.” — John Holden 2015

Four propositions were made – that 1. Culture is critical for democratic urban governance,  2. participation and collaboration between civil society and government is essential for success, 3.  the urban provides the greatest opportunity for exploring the intersection of culture, creativity and economy and its relationship to the symbolic, the expressive and everyday life – the main components of local cultural policy and practise.  And 4. we are at a critical juncture where there is renewed expressive energy, linked to a call for alternate pathways of urban change – a space of possibility and need which academia can occupy has opened, together.  This has come as the SA state is looking for new ideas – seen in COGTA’s Integrated Urban Development Framework, SALGA’s interest in the UCLG’s Agenda 21 for Culture and a final draft of the new White Paper on Arts and Culture which incorporates, for the first time, a local government connection.

Thus she reiterated the call for a long term multilevel research agenda linking culture and sustainable urban development with some specific ideas for “reanimation”.  These include gatherings between academic players and a dialogue with practitioners,  and engaging with government in improving its cultural governance frameworks,  while furthering the use of a collaborative ethos.

This talk created a useful segue into the next day for researchers from UCT and UWC, who have begun to informally discuss ways their work, collectively, adds value to such a research agenda.

On the following day, titled The Integrated City: Local Cultural Policy and Sustainable Development, seven researchers at UCT and UWC, who had started a dialogue a few months back, which included a reading group to explore some of the issues which Avril had high-lighted, were able to present their own research to each other,  to a small group of practitioners and other academics.  They all responded to the UCLG Culture Actions document, a local cultural policy framework for sustainable urban development as a way to sharpen the debate.  Each presented on their current and past research in groups of two, with a practitioner responding to the inputs.

Cultural Mapping by the City of Cape Town: Image from presentation by Vaugh Sadie

Naomi Roux and Valmont Layne spoke to issues of creativity and heritage, with a response by heritage specialist, Deidre Prins-Solani.  Rike Sitas and Anna Selmeczi spoke on public art, affect and placemaking and were responded to by social entrepreneur, Brenda SkelengeLaura Nkula-Wenz and Vaughn Sadie spoke on experiments with cultural mapping and planning, and on policy transfer and were responded to by a local government official and skater activist, Marco Morgan.  The session was chaired by Zayd Minty and Avril Joffe did the wrap up.  The event was supported by the SA Local Government Association (SALGA).

Participants agreed that Culture 21 was a useful provocation (noting the missing elements of memory and affect). Using it, and reflecting on their research work, they spoke to a range of issues related to differing contexts and the importance of everyday culture; implications of policy transfer and travelling policy; how to work with local notions of development, social justice and collaboration – noting how power and agency functions; understanding alternative visualities and socially engaged art as important “disrupters”, and as a way to develop new collective meanings; recognizing the importance of the aesthetic and the sensory for the urban experience; advocating the need to embrace indigenous knowledge and work with vernacular creativity; embracing the importance of formal and informal spaces and practices; and the implications of these for resilience at a neighborhood level.

From therealcityofcapetown IG account. Pic by Zubair Sayed. From presentation by Anna Selmeczi

On the question of policy and governance, researchers raised the following:  the challenge of instrumental uses of arts and culture; messiness, complexity and the context of inequality in Africa; the lack of data guiding policy and the need for government to move beyond commissioning research, to using it; lack of complementarity of rules and by laws; the seeming inability of government to work with contestation; the challenges of erasure of identities and other unintended consequences of government actions – which are, in addition, sometimes poorly evaluated and, often missed, productive opportunities. The discrepancy of action – from “lack of will” to “interference” from the political and/or administrative was noted.  Cultural policy it was proposed should focus on clarity of values and guiding principles rooted in democracy and which fosters emergence, and that move beyond simple “service delivery” to “partnership” and “ownership”.

The shut down Red Location Museum. Pic form presentation by Naomi Roux

Calls were thus made for MORE: participation; local level agreements and agency, transversal co-ordination; funds for community based programming, appreciation of informal entities, data especially on everyday culture life; empathy and sensitivity for working with people in spaces and places doing interesting work and for everyday culture; instruments that enable local cultural practises to flourish.  LESS needed: imposed buildings; top down policies and strategies; formulaic consultation.  Finally it was less about artists and more about culture, about the arts and about communities.

In closing, the convener Zayd Minty, summing up final thoughts, proposed the following next steps – a series of workshops and/or conferences in collaboration between Wits, UCT, UWC, inviting in other universities/think tanks/agencies/researchers, potentially “piggybacking” on upcoming national events. Later a special edition journal could flow from interactions over time; while the need to “translate” academic material for advocacy and practise was noted. Further engaged research and possible pilot projects were also flighted.  Lastly a call was made for a network of some kind (formal or informal) to take forward the agenda.  Material would continue to be posted on the Research Gate page and a dedicated Facebook group.

The importance of such gatherings cannot be underestimated.  From a series of dialogues between individual researchers and practitioners, and a range of fortuitous government linked initiatives, a further step forward to new thinking around cultural governance specific for the local South African context was made.  This has the possibility to open productive new opportunities for research and for developments.  At a time when cities in South Africa are struggling with challenges of inequality, economic slowdowns, political dramas and unrests, high social division and creeping climate change challenges – more than ever, steady steps towards finding collective answers, working with culture, are vitally needed.

Thanks due to Avril Joffe’s excellent summing up notes, used in the write up of this piece. 

This article by Zayd Minty was first published on 6 September on Creative City South.