Tom Porter is the Head of Arts for the British Council in South Africa and as such is the man at the helm of the Connect/ZA programme of creative events, projects, initiatives and exchanges between South African and UK young creatives that is currently in full swing and having a considerable impact on the local creative scene. Tom’s background includes many years organising cross-cultural creative events and projects with a focus on youth engagement. This thorough understanding of the role young creative entrepreneurs play in the current cultural milieu underpins the Connect/ZA programme, which aims to foster lasting connections and partnerships between the creative economies of South Africa and the UK. Tom very kindly agreed to share some of his insights and experiences of young South Africa with us for this series. We’re much obliged.
Please tell us about the overarching strategy for the Connect ZA programme – how it came about, what the vision is, etc.
Connect ZA is a programme from the British Council that aims to connect creatives from the UK and South Africa. The British Council works in over 100 countries in English, Education & Society and Arts. The Arts team felt that the artistic relationship between the two countries had become quite dated. I was brought in to bring a shape and direction to a ‘Season’ of activity to kick start a renewed relationship. The Connect ZA emphasis on the 18-35, connected urban creatives is a response to how we felt we could best make an impact with the time and resources we have. We wanted to be realistic about what could be achieved in the first phase of a new arts programme. And also to work with those most ready and able to connect internationally.
Connect ZA has exploded onto the scene with a firm finger on the pulse of what’s going on. How have you managed to ‘tap in’ so thoroughly?
Our credibility – such as it is – relies on our partners and the groundwork we have put in as a team. Listening and watching for a good six months enabled me to see where the energy was and where I thought UK connections could be most welcome and beneficial. Working with organisations such as Word N Sound and Live Mag SA was central to that. It enabled us to absorb the interests of young people. Then obviously keeping an eye on relevant media platforms such as 10and5 provides a crash course on the ZA creative sector.
‘Connect ZA’ – what’s at the heart of the idea of ‘connecting’?
Connecting I think works best when it is seen in contrast to teaching or educating. Cultural relation organisations such as British Council need to engage in the countries in which they work, they need to listen, respond and stimulate. And recognize they are best placed as catalyst organisations. By connecting young creatives we are building networks with intrinsic instant purpose but also potential long term benefits. Connecting people and organisations with similar outlooks or objectives has sustainability built in. These real world and virtual people-to-people networks will take forward ideas and ideals further and faster than big global organisations. We appreciate the opportunity to facilitate these connections.
What are some of the common things that you’ve noticed are shared between young creatives in SA and the UK?
We have worked extensively in the space between the bright young creatives and professional arts careers. With our Creative Hustles and Young Creative Entrepreneur programme we have been able to come into contact with some great talent. I guess a shared challenge is the funding environment and the challenge of making a business from art. Young people on both sides are battling to find a route through when the long term secure careers are hard to come by. Both sides are being creative in how to make sense of the new reality, when to ‘cash out’ (rather than ‘sell out’) by working with the corporates. They are responding to the new business model of the web and using an ability to curate content and access markets to fund a creative business. Take Jamal Edwards of SB.TV or your own Uno De Waal, young people are recognizing the value of developing communities and content then working out how to make this curation pay.
What are the distinct differences?
Perhaps the scope of the scene in the UK – the range of opportunities, organisations and initiatives creatives can engage with. The creative industries are at the heart of the UK economy so receive more support from Government, industry and audiences. However, more recently opportunities are contracting as austerity bites – there is a worrying trend of only the privileged able to take advantage of unpaid internships or low paid work. But still it has a wide variety of support for creatives. In South Africa it feels the potential of the creative industries is just being recognized so the hustle is more urgent and necessary. This can stimulate creativity – but it can also create a sense of competition when greater partnership working and co-operation would be beneficial.
What are some of the ways in which the Connect ZA programme is engaging with and reshaping the historical ties between South Africa and the UK?
I think we are keen to stray away from grand claims like this but we are excited about what our partners are doing. In visual art, design, music, spoken word, theatre and film we are introducing new talent from ZA to the UK and vice versa. We are asking this talent, through our partners, to direct a new conversation. We have set out to be ‘mutual’ and I think that is an important premise. Neither side has the answer to each other’s challenges but connecting can help forge new ways of thinking and working.
Please tell us more about the Young Creative Entrepreneur Awards – How were the categories decided upon, and how does this fit into the overarching Connect ZA strategy?
The YCE programme is a global project of the British Council run from the Creative Economy department in London. They use their global network to look at what categories could work best. We are working across all disciplines but other countries pick and choose. We have winners from Digital Publishing, Music and Culture. Open now we have a Fashion & Design award – which is proving to be very popular, partly I think because our message is out there – but also because these are vibrant sectors with a raft of people hungry for international connections.
The YCE programme is a great fit with Connect ZA as it is looking for innovation, entrepreneurialism and young people ready and able to establish international networks.
Please can you take us through some of the upcoming Connect/ZA projects that young creatives should look out for/get involved in…
We have loads of opportunities to see and do stuff coming up:
Watch a UK film on a beach in Durban; vote in the first ever national youth slam at the National Arts Festival; make a film at A.MAZE festival; meet creatives from across the continent and UK at Youth Futures; learn a skill at a Maker Library; or apply to be a Young Creative Entrepreneur.
This is to name just a few – keep an eye online for the full list.
Underpinning Connect/ZA is a strong digital focus. Please tell us more about this…
Ensuring we tell our new stories online is the quickest and easiest way to reach large numbers of young creatives separated by distance and airfare costs. Also, we are interested in how the digital sphere is creating new creative opportunities and are excited about how the UK and South Africa can share their work in this regard.
We have reached millions online through Facebook and Twitter, people who could never make it to our events or take part in our programmes. We have also recently been commissioned to create a series of collaborative films for the relaunch of a new online platform in the UK backed by Arts Council England and the BBC. These films will be showcased as part of the Commonwealth Games cultural programme. This will stretch artists, create new connections between creative forms and enable us to showcase new work internationally.
The digital realm is perhaps the most exciting area for cultural relations, unbound by borders and high costs of production – what can new global connections generate?
What do you think young South African creatives have to learn?
We are still in the listening phase of our project and enjoying learning from creatives. We are about creating connections and facilitating new networks. We are not well placed to judge what is to be learnt.
What do you think young South African creatives have to be proud of?
Everyone we have brought through to ZA has been really engaged and energized by the scene here. The vibrancy, openness and enthusiasm of young creatives is making new connections a rewarding endeavour.
How would you describe the current SA ‘creative scene’?
I think it is battling with some challenges but is vibrant and progressive in the main. With just 20 years since freedom there is a strong sense that creatives are beginning to define this new freedom and are keen to push at the boundaries of creative practice internationally.
What about this excites you the most?
I came to South Africa when I was 19 and that changed how I saw the outside world and fundamentally altered my life and career. Working with creatives to give them international exposure and opportunity is most definitely exciting. Through these creatives we are accessing communities of young people and if in some way we can broaden a horizon or create an opportunity that wasn’t there before then we can feel that the hard work has been worthwhile.
Anything else you would like to add…
And you can follow Tom on Twitter too.