South African Cultural Observatory

Creative Economy research needed to preserve SA’s living heritage, cultural identities

BY Unathi Lutshaba 28.09.17

SOUTH African Cultural Observatory (SACO) Research Manager Unathi Lutshaba highlights the role of creative economy research in the preservation of cultural identities and South Africa’s living heritage.

INTERNATIONAL research has shown the importance of a substantive creative economy for the workings of democracy, political participation, the exercise of human rights and the preservation of cultural identity.

South Africa’s creative economy already contributes 2.93 percent to the country’s GDP, and participation in the Arts Culture and Heritage sector and Creative and Cultural Industries (CCIs) is definitely growing. Together with the economic impact that growth in this sector has already had, various social and cultural influences have subsequently emerged.

While socio-economic development is at the core of the creative economy, creative practitioners working within this sector have also made significant contributions to the promotion and preservation of cultural identities and heritage of the country.

In the spirit of heritage month, it is important to take cognisance of the role of creative practitioners, many of whom can be classified as Living Human Treasures, in safeguarding South Africa’s intangible living heritage. Largely understood as people who possess a vast degree of knowledge and skills that can be used to perform or recreate intangible cultural heritage, Living Human Treasures play a critical role in the cultural development of their societies.

Intangible living heritage is not only a valuable resource for future generations but also promotes a positive African identity in an ever-globalising world.  According to UNESCO, living heritage includes any practices, expressions, knowledge, skills and values that individuals, groups or communities recognise as part of their cultural heritage and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity.

The Department of Arts and Culture has highlighted the role that living heritage plays an in the promotion of cultural diversity, social cohesion, reconciliation and economic development in the country, and has noted the role of living heritage in addressing some of the challenges facing many communities today.

Living heritage is expressed in various forms including performing arts and traditional craftsmanship – both of which are valuable contributors to the creative economy.  Let’s not forget that the creative economy includes creative professionals who work in a wide range of knowledge-based occupations in high-tech and indigenous sectors.

One example of a Living Human Treasure in South Africa is Dr Nokuzola Mndende, the founder of the Icamagu Institute, situated in Dutywa in the Eastern Cape. She is an academic, a practitioner and leader of African Indigenous Religion. Such individuals, many of whom operate within the creative economy, employ useful and unique methods in their endeavours to ensure that their cultural heritage is preserved.

While Living Human Treasures, such as Dr Mndende, and living heritage form an important part of the creative economy, data and knowledge associated with this form of cultural heritage and identity is under threat of not being secured for future generations. That is, while South Africa has a rich and diverse living cultural heritage, statistical data related to this heritage as well as Living Human Treasures is limited. 

There’s a need to identify such data and knowledge sources in order to define and operationalise relevant domains, create representative lists and identify Living Human Treasures under threat of disappearing. In addition to the development of databases, mechanisms also need to be put in place to ensure that what is known about existing Living Human Treasures is captured and stored for future use.

UNESCO has specifically called for the safeguarding of living heritage and has encouraged governments to identify, document, research, preserve, protect and promote this form of heritage.

The role of cultural observatories in the collation and preservation of data and knowledge related to cultural identities and practices in the CCIs, and their related contribution to the safeguarding of living heritage should not be overlooked.

Cultural observatories offer analysis of cultural indicators, produce cultural data and they monitor and disseminate information. They play an important role in the development of future policies and create a cultural information system that enables the quantitative study of human culture.

There are a number of cultural observatories around the world all focused on identifying trends in the cultural and heritage sectors to support the socio-economic growth of the creative economy.

Cultural observatories develop the capability to reflect and contribute to changing philosophical and social science discourses on the particularities of culture and heritage, including its measurement, past, present and future. And it is through their focus on the development of comprehensive cultural information systems which capture, conserve and monitor cultural data that they are able to make key contributions to the preservation of cultural identities and heritage for generations to come.

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