SA crafts industry keeps growing

12 September 2002

From hawkers’ stalls in the streets of Johannesburg to sanctified places in museums, African crafts have burgeoned in the past decade. More and more South Africans are making their livelihoods producing crafts, as non-governmental organisations and government departments alike embrace the sector as a means of fighting poverty and raising awareness about HIV/Aids.

The craft sector is estimated to employ 1.2 million people and contribute a whopping R3.4-billion to the economy every year.

Funds generated from crafts are often the sole source of income for poor, usually illiterate, people to gain access into the formal economy, according to Susan Sellschop of the South African Crafts Council. The Council, set up in 1991, has an extensive database of local crafters and craft-related institutions in South Africa.

“You cannot accurately say how many people are involved in the crafts industry in South Africa, but their contribution to the economy is enormous,” said Sellschop. “It can be someone making something on the side of the road and selling his goods informally. But his contribution is vital because he is feeding his family and they are making a living from the industry.”

According to the Cultural Industries Growth Strategy (CIGS) compiled by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in 1998, “craft provides an entry-point into the economy for under-resourced groups who are then able to develop their skills through experience, apprenticeship and mentoring . Craft activity acts as a low-cost training ‘school’ for skills which can be later used in the formal sector”.

The report highlights the fact that craft sectors in developing countries tend to have poor resource bases and limited international support structures, often depending on international aid and markets in the European Union, US and Asia to build the crafts sector in the first place.

The women from the Basotho Cultural Village, nestled in the mountainous areas of the Free State, have no resources. They often have to trek up these mountains to fetch the clay to make their clay pots, says Mamoele Moshoeshoe, who trains the women to create their own crafts.

“We are still looking for a market. I do not think that there are enough resources and funds in the crafts industry”, Moshoeshoe says. “Our own local governments do not help us, never mind the international community. You know, if only the crafts people can get the market, it will be very good. I know that people from abroad like our stuff.”


Pottery arrangements at the Ubuntu Village

Business skills are vital, as craft makers often do not know how to market and price their goods or even how to bargain, said Sellschop. And obtaining access to funds is often a barrier, especially for informal traders in rural areas.

“Banking is a big problem, particularly when it comes to obtaining small loans. If a crafter wants a R3 000 loan to buy a sewing machine, for example, many banks will only offer a R50 000 loan. That is too much of a burden to bear for local traders, who may have a non-existent banking history.”

While it is largely government-dependant, the South African craft industry can draw inspiration from countries like the US, where legislation stipulates that 5% of all funds for constructing and developing public buildings must be spent on arts and crafts. In Mexico, the government backed the development of popular culture and now exports over US$1-billion worth of crafts a year.

Then again, these developed countries have far larger consumer bases, and are far better resourced. In the US alone, the craft industry generated $10.85-billion a year as far back as 1995.

Sellschop said that in order for the crafts market to blast off in South Africa, it must become sustainable, “offering jobs that are here now and this time next year”.

She stresses that tourism is essential, and that the spin-off is that the quality of the country’s crafts will be improved. But she insists that success will not necessarily be found in the export market.

“Everyone wants an international market, but why? Why should we not send our tourists here? Let them see what we have to offer, rather than exporting our goods to New York”, she says.

The World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in Johannesburg from 26 August to 4 September, presented the ideal opportunity for local crafters to showcase their wares.

Carmelina Ntiringa’s stall at Ubuntu Village at the Wanderers in Johannesburg reflected a fusion of South African traditions, blended with influences from her birthplace in Kenya: pretty pictures of landscapes woven on to recycled banana leaves, ceramic bowls finely decorated with African motifs, and kaleidoscopic beaded chains, their colours glinting in the sunlight.

While Ntiringa may not have been used to the broken English of the busloads of tourists who visited the village eager for a taste of Africa, like many other crafts people she welcomed their full wallets. “We have had a good response from foreigners. It gives us hopes for the future of the local craft industry”, said Ntiringa.

“There is hope and potential in creative work,” she said. “Women can now be happy with themselves. They have seen that it is more meaningful to make crafts rather than just to collect firewood and cook.”

Her husband Joseph agreed. “Men can also come up with creative work and ensure that they don’t sit at home, just sulking because there are no jobs. Now they have seen that they can make also living for their families, by painting ostrich eggs for example”, he said.

Ntiringa said that creating a thriving tourist market in South Africa is key to the craft sector’s success. “We must keep on bringing tourists here. Everyone says that we must market our stuff internationally, but we will get so much added value if we bring them here – they will sleep in our hotels, use our transport, it will have so much more benefits for the local economy. It’s so costly to send our goods to the UK and Asia.”

The CIGS study observes that craft sectors built mainly on domestic demand have greater sustainability than those sectors dependant on export or tourist markets.

Locals have long been viewed as apathetic non-consumers of crafts, but there may still be some promise in proving that “local is lekker“.

“South Africans at Ubuntu Village have been coming up to me and saying they are so proud to be South Africans”, Ntiringa said. “One man even cried. I think people have been bowled over by the talent of our industry, and let’s hope it stays that way.”