Cape Town's Two City Tale of Culture

Branding for the WDC Bid 20114 was designed by Bruno Morphet, Plan B.

Branding for the WDC Bid 20114 was designed by Bruno Morphet, Plan B.

Cape Town became a UNESCO Creative City of Design in November '17, building on its winning of the title "World Design Capital 2014".  What was the path to becoming a "creative city"?  Why did it choose to bid for World Design Capital and what came of 2014?   What sort of challenges does it currently face as a creative city?   In a series of pieces I explore these and other issues. 

I  start in this article highlighting the core characteristics that make Cape Town culturally rich, and what elements enabled it to become a home for creativity.  But in it I also highlight its biggest challenge  - its divided nature - and how this is reflected in its cultural and creative industries support systems.

Lets start far back and look at what brought the City to where it was in 1994, when the country transitioned into a democracy, and discriminatory, racially defined laws were finally abolished.  Then we will look at what took place  leading up to 2000, laying the scene for next weeks article talking about the lead up to the city's World Design Capital bid for 2014.

A Conflicted and Diverse History

The southern most tip of Africa was home to two sets of interconnected first nations people the Khoe Khoe and the San at the time it was rounded by Europeans looking for a route to the east.  At the time Xhosa people were further along settled largely across the Kei River.  The Dutch East India Company  arrival in 1652  led to land being forcibly taken.  Slaves were later brought in from all over, largely from Java, India and the nearby Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique. These slaves who would make up two thirds of the population before slavery was finally abolished in 1834, would significantly influence the region and were critical to building the colonial city.  Later French Huguenots arrived as refugees in the region, setting up the wine industry.   Cape Town was formally ceded to Britain in 1814 after a series of conflicts.  The discovery of diamonds and gold prompted a flood of immigrants through the city. As a result, by the end of the 1800s, Cape Town was considered one of the most diverse cities in the world, far more so even than New York, which had its urban beginnings at roughly the same time.

Drowning Slave.  A piece inspired by a collaborative performance project on slavery in the Cape, entitled "Cargo", by Magnet Theatre  and Jazzart Dance Theatre.  Image by the late photographer Garth Stead.  Circa 2008.  

Drowning Slave.  A piece inspired by a collaborative performance project on slavery in the Cape, entitled "Cargo", by Magnet Theatre  and Jazzart Dance Theatre.  Image by the late photographer Garth Stead.  Circa 2008.  

Cape Town was, and has remained a key legislative centre in South Africa, throughout all the changes in politics and boundary shifts which eventually led to it becoming first the Union of South Africa in 1910 and later the Republic of South Africa in 1961.  The election of Nationalist Party from 1948 built on centuries old segregationist policies and laws, with the "Nats" perfecting the design of the Apartheid system in Stellenbosch University and implementing it ruthlessly.  It would take significant internal struggles, which eventually became violent; international condemnation; economic, sporting and cultural boycotts; before the country could finally achieve universal franchise in 1994.

One of the many popular"Bioscopes" in District Six introducing residents to the global popular culture of the day

One of the many popular"Bioscopes" in District Six introducing residents to the global popular culture of the day

Culture: History and Geography

One cannot understand the cultural life of the country nor its cultural policy developments without acknowledging this history and its impact economically, socially and spatially.  The Group Areas Act and the system of forced removals from the 60s on were probably the most critically damaging blows of Apartheid that shape contemporary urban challenges in South African cities today. Cape Town, because of its particular form was especially impacted.  Its for this reason the bid for World Design Capital recognized that Apartheid design was so total, pervasive and long lasting, that to shift it there was a need to again work with the idea of design to rethink and remake the city.

By 1990 the unbanning of political parties would lead to a shift in the anti apartheid struggle and a slow opening of the country.  What was the state of the cultural systems in place at this point? In particular how was creativity  being fostered?   As a result of apartheid there are two sides to the story.

The Cultural City of the Colonial Class

White people in colonial Cape Town reproduced arts management systems from the West.  They established art schools, such as the Michaelis School of Arts in the University of Cape Town, and provided education in the classical arts in performing and the literary arts.  Institutions formed in each of these disciplines including non profit publicly supported galleries and theatres, as well as state funded orchestras, ballet, theatre and opera companies. Cape Town had one of the country's four major performing arts councils which supported the classical arts and which is  still in place today as Artscape.   A strong set of museums developed, amalgamated today as Iziko Museums.   The city has cared about a reading culture - it has remained a key center of the publishing industry and the municipality has a strong library system, with branches in many communities. 

Cape Town has been the most "blessed" of all the South African cities for this strong cultural management system which includes old institutions with codified knowledge, collections, and cultural industries.  But its also been the most complex city to transform, since many of the cultural institutions are representations of the ideological machine that shaped them.  Many of these organizations are still connected to the moneyed interest groups that formed around them and powerful business and community leaders from these groups continue to serve as patrons and political allies of the classical arts.

An artistic rendition of the minstrels, by Hasan and Hussein Essop.  In Bo Kaap

An artistic rendition of the minstrels, by Hasan and Hussein Essop.  In Bo Kaap

The Culture of the Masses

The cultures of communities of color have been less defined narrowly by western culture, since neither support nor arts education was provided by the state.  In some communities - in District Six in particular, various social projects such as the Eon Group developed, providing an education in classical music, dance and music,   However, on the whole, the cultural lives of people of people of color was a creolised one. Black oral and performance cultures, residual traditions stemming from slave communities, religious practises and popular culture would influence each other and result in a multitude of unique and vibrant expressive forms.  The unique minstrels carnival tradition in the Cape is a case in point.  Its annual carnival procession has its roots in the abolition of slavery.  Cape Jazz is also a unique hybrid form.  Music has been a strong feature of the cultural life of communities of color in the Cape and the region has and continues to produce, some of the most significant composers of the country.  Cape Town remains a stylish city which has always been adept at drawing on popular culture influences from elsewhere, fusing it with local influences, to make it its own.  Its unsurprising that the city has its own unique hip hop styles which draw on local vernacular and has its beginnings in the 80s, influenced often by an older generation interested in pop, disco, jazz and rock.

a poster designed by Gaby Cheminais from CAP Media for a banned art exhibition 

a poster designed by Gaby Cheminais from CAP Media for a banned art exhibition 

The influences of the struggle

In addition to the influence of popular culture, Cape Town developed a set of groupings who responded to the repressive nature of apartheid and who mobilised culture to shape new discourses, of struggle, towards community cohesiveness and non racialism.  Cape Town was the birth place of the United Democratic Front, a non-racial coalition of over 400 civic, student and trade union bodies nationally.  This built on the city's long tradition of being able to organise communities, worker movements and an alternative press.   

Influenced by the Culture and Resistance Conference of 1982 in Gaberone a number of arts and media organisations in Cape Town started or were bolstered through meeting other like minded bodies interested in drawing on culture for activism.   The Community Arts Project, CAP Media, Vakalisa, Thupelo, CASET (later Bush Radio) and Community Video Education Trust were all important arts and media organisations which influenced creativity in communities following the historic conference.   Their contribution in providing education and voice to those denied opportunity and agency was considerable.   What was to happen to their legacy?

 
a model on the catwalk at Design Indaba 2008, showing off locally made design accessories.  this and the following  colour photos by Anita Van Zyl

a model on the catwalk at Design Indaba 2008, showing off locally made design accessories.  this and the following  colour photos by Anita Van Zyl

After Change

There was great optimism after the first democratic elections followed by a period of vibrant experimentation, new events/projects and voluntarism.  There was also the growth of the creative economy.

As the country opened up there was a flood of creative people and journalists who spent time here, interested in documenting the change and making the most of the opportunities and new energy of a transforming country.   Cape Town started attracting the commercial stills and film industry because of its locations and light.  This brought in new capital and grew the burgeoning creative industries sector - people working in advertising, photography, fashion, styling, modelling all benefitted.  It helped the growth of documentary and feature film making, building on the back of a strengthened infrastructure and improved skills and talent.  Rave culture was big and influenced a plethora of new music (bands and DJs), initiated new venues and festivals, and influenced the growing graphic design, illustration, animation and fashion sectors.

The annual Design Indaba (design festival) started, initially drawing heavily on talent from the growing communications industry.  The Design Indaba fair would bring together the best of South African design and attracted local and international buyers.  Lifestyle magazines started covering local design and there was increased work for architectural firms, interior design, fashion accessories and visual art.  There was a burst of independent publishing for a while.  Later as the internet took off, the city became a home for ICT sector, which fitted well with the strong communications, design and publishing sectors.   A global interest in South African visual arts, influenced by the two Johannesburg Biennales, resulted in the opening of a slew of new galleries and more recently an art fair and a private contemporary art museum - the Zeitz Mocaa.  

This has all been buoyed by the city's natural beauty, great lifestyle, top restaurants, four excellent universities, friendly people and active nightlife.  Feedback was that Cape Town's beauty and lifestyle, aided it being an inspiring space for creatives.  Its small, walkable city centre and good public spaces, which happened to be the centre of its cultural and creative industries, made it easy for people to connect and do business.   A key challenge, which has remained a big one, was Cape Town's miserable winters - a time when the city quietens significantly, a challenging situation for everyone, not least the hospitality industry.  

anita van zyl Loeries09_3039.jpg
Robbie Jansen, a musician synonymous with Cape Jazz, who died in relative poverty.  Image by Steve Gordon.

Robbie Jansen, a musician synonymous with Cape Jazz, who died in relative poverty.  Image by Steve Gordon.

Deeper concerns

Later, increased government restrictions on nightlife, coupled with a growing drug scene, gangs and crime, led to changes in the quality of the night life.  Cape Town has always remained a party scene, however many live music venues and other edgier spaces have been forced to close over time.  The shortage of well priced, medium sized eventing venues has also been challenging.  Despite the strong musical tradition and the presence of the annual CT Jazz Festival, the music scene has suffered greatly as a result of these latter issues and many Cape musicians have either left the city or died penniless.

The poor state of music support is indicative of failures of cultural policy implementation at all levels of government.  After change, government in the Cape placed most of its support into transforming Apartheid's old state cultural institutions (which took longer than expected) and started Robben Island Museum rather than in supporting the anti-apartheid structures.  Many of these important spaces of resistance would close,  Challenging bureaucracies, party political machinations, poor implementation, the lack of adequate monitoring and evaluations, and a lack of care in engaging with the cultural sector have all had their toll.  What needed to be done was not.  In some cases there have been systems failures as with the National Lotteries Distribution Fund.  Support was needed but never sufficiently found its way to: the financing of new work, the protection of important arts workers in all disciplines, a network of community arts centres and for robust bodies supporting cultural development in communities of color. 

From creative industries to new spaces of creative forment

Policy directives around creative industry development have had various levels of success and continue to be a strong drive at a national and, for a decade and a half, at a provincial level.   A growing interest by young people to enter the creative industries has led to the formation in Cape Town of many private colleges in film, music production, and design.  Cape Town through, remains at heart a divided city racially and class wise.  There have been attempts at bridging this design with such projects as IJR's Memory Project, BLAC and the early work of the One City Many Culture initiative.  The divide remains reflected in the creative and cultural industries.  The creative sector in the city is predominantly white.  Young black graduates have tended to leave the city for Johannesburg as they have done for the last two decades.   However there have been notable changes in a number of the state run initiatives, with a growing number of young black cultural managers in various spaces.  

Performer in the Infecting the City Festival in 2008 

Performer in the Infecting the City Festival in 2008 

Other spaces of refuge and resistance have emerged in the non profit sector and in universities.  The District Six Museum, Chimurenga, Greatmore Studios, The Africa Centre and Infecting the City, UWC's Centre for Humanities, UCT's African Centre for Cities, Stellenbosch university's Sustainability Institute, Capetown TV and Bush Radio have been some of the key spaces and networks where alternative voices have been fostered.   Today new voices enter from the margins with a flourishing of theatre in black communities, supported in part by early efforts of such organisations as the Baxter and Magnet Theatre Trust.

Conclusion

Thus Cape Town is culturally and creatively vibrant, but it is complex at a socio-political and spatial level, and these impacts are felt in the still divided and unequal city.  These conditions form the bedrock of understanding the how and why of the World Design Capital bid.  They will also provide some of the clues behind the successes and failures of the endeavour.  

Was the city able to address its divides and build on its potential in the bid lead up?  In the next piece, we will look at how the city worked with its opportunities and challenges creatively and  attempted to bring this together with a vision for challenging apartheid's spatial legacy.