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South Africa has a colourful, diverse and vibrant craft sector. One of the strengths of the country’s crafts is its distinctiveness/uniqueness. The basketry from South Africa is recognisable from anywhere in the world. A person who is familiar with the Ilala grass woven baskets from KwaZulu-Natal will know them wherever they might see them in the world. So is the basketry from the Free State and Limpopo. Such is the character of our crafts in that they tend to a great extent to take on the geographic and traditional inspiration of particular areas of our country. Beadwork for instance is a very common genre in this country. However beadwork from KwaZulu-Natal is somewhat different from that made in the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Limpopo. 

Then there are crafters and designer who have been able to use traditional forms and motifs of craft design and production and modernise them to respond to market opportunities in the areas of interior design, clothing accessories and various utilitarian crafts that are contemporary yet to a great extent also distinctly South African.

The path leading to where the South African crafts sector is has not been an easy or even structured one. In fact the crafts sector is still to a great extent still informal, uncoordinated and its potential not fully maximised. This however belies the great work that has been done and still is by a range of craft sector role players and stakeholders.

A glimpse into a colourful 15 year history reveals a lot.

The history of the South African craft sector shows that this sector has been and is still characterised by a plethora of activities and initiatives.

The Cultural Industries Growth Strategy (CIGS) of 1998 was the first recognisable government’s coordinated effort to address the development of South Africa’s cultural industries. CIGS was a study into four cultural sectors in South Africa, namely the music, craft, Books and the film industries. The aim of the CIGS research was to scope the nature of these four sectors, and to propose strategies for their growth and development. Since then, DAC has driven various programmes and initiatives in these sectors to address key government imperatives. The focus of government’s cultural industries has not broadened to also include other sectors such as events and technical services, design, visual arts and in 2011 the National Department of Arts and Culture adopted the Mzansi Golden Economy to fast track the arts, culture and heritage sector role in addressing and meeting government’s strategic goals. 

In 2005 the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) embarked on what was called the customised sector programme on craft which aimed to address among others, the market access potential of the creative industries and the craft sector to grow South Africa’s market share.

The Western Cape and the Northern Cape Provincial conducted craft audits in their provinces. These audits served as the humble beginnings of some of the good work that is now taking place through entities such as the Cape Craft and Design Institute in the Western Cape. The CCDI is now a major force in the development of the Western Cape craft and design sector. It has also been used as a model and blue print that informed the establishment of other hubs. In the Northern Cape the audit went a long way in extending craft development services to remote under-serviced areas of the Northern Cape and helped put art and craft, particularly of the indigenous Khoi-San communities, on the national map.

The Eastern Cape Craft Development Agency (ECCDA) which was housed within the Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC) was established in 2004 to drive the craft development programmes in the province.

The North West to has come a long way and now also boosts the provincial craft development entity, the Bokone-Bophirima Craft and Design Institute which was established in 2009 based on the craft hub blue print resulting from the Customized Sector Programme.

Back in 1999 up to 2003 the National Arts Council (NAC) drove an initiative which was designed to use what was referred to as provincial craft fairs as platforms for training and marketing of emerging craft enterprises and crafters.

At the time discussions on this strategy was mostly limited among the National Arts Council (NAC), the DTI (This was prior to the establishment of the Creative Industries Desk at the DTI), the DAC, and what was known as the Mineworkers Development Agency (MDA) and the Arts and Culture provincial Departments.

When the DTI established the Cultural Industries Directorate within the then Trade and Investment South Africa (TISA), this was to herald a turning point in the right direction in addressing commercial and market access issues of the craft industry. Since the establishment of this Unit the DTI has been at the forefront of developing the sectors’ ability to interface with various platforms which are aimed at enabling greater market access. However broader access and participation for crafters continues to be a challenge.

The DAC conceptualised and staged the National Craft Imbizo in 2001.

The various above initiatives triggered greater and most welcome participation from entities like Proudly South African (PSA). PSA started also started looking into the craft sector and also increased it collaboration with the DAC. In 2002 another key role player was the Tourism Enterprise Programme (now Tourism Enterprise Partnership, TEP) which was doing some work on the development needs of small enterprises in the tourism sector.

TEP collaborated with DAC in the staging of the 2nd National Craft Imbizo at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) by subsidising the PSA accreditation fees that crafters had to pay. TEP also played a key role in the early stages of the domestic market access initiative by the DTI called “One of a Kind Exhibition” which later evolved into the South African Handmade Collection.

In recognition of the critical need for crafters to access information the DAC published what was known as the Craft Information Handbook and Directory. These were distributed widely to crafters and craft practitioners. A sequel to this intervention is now the craft business manual which the DAC is developing in 2013 to assist crafters to hone their craft business management skills.

The 2002 WSSD marked the birth of the DAC’s Beautiful Things Exhibition which was later moved to the Newtown Cultural Precinct at the Bus Factory and managed by the Craft Council, a craft development NGO.

The Craft Council, previously Craft Action Body undertook a number of craft activities such as organizing and mounting the renown FNB VITA Craft Competition, distributing a very informative quarterly newsletter, maintaining a national database of crafters, running a range of workshops and training programmes for crafters.

Preceding the current SETA dispensation under the Department of Higher Education and Training was the Department of Labour SETA programmes where the cultural industries were serviced by the Media, Advertising, Publishing, Printing and Packaging (MAPPP) SETA’s Create South Africa. Notwithstanding the challenges, blockages, problems linked to the programme, the MAPPP SETA was nevertheless a key player as far as skills development for crafters was concerned.

The DAC then embarked on the Poverty Alleviation Programme which later became known as the Investing in Culture Programme (IIC). This programme went some way in assisting with training and support for production to arts, culture and heritage initiatives throughout the country. Like other interventions, the IIC was plagued by capacity related challenges and criticism of procedural bottlenecks in the allocation process and failing to assist many beneficiaries with access to viable and sustainable markets Major weaknesses of the programmes related to insufficient ability to penetrate viable and sustainable markets. Lack of management skills also continued to plague beneficiaries of IIC support making it difficult for them to become sustainable.

Then there was the Due –South Initiative which was a mapping of craft and craft related places of interest. This was an invaluable database, albeit somewhat limited, on who was who in the craft sector, especially the crafters and craft projects/enterprises. The guides were targeted primarily at the tourist market.

The DAC is now working on a strategy to address service delivery challenges in the craft sector. This strategy aims to address blockages of access to information, access to small business finance and services, access to raw materials, access to appropriate and strategic skills development access to sustainable markets.

Coupled with the above the DAC also aims to effectively integrate its craft development programme with the Mzansi Golden Economy and other national programes to address the issue of access for crafters.