An African cultural capital?

October 2009 -

Could an annually rotating African Cultural Capital contribute to development on the continent? That question came up during the World Conference over Art and Culture that was held in Johannesburg at the end of September 2009.

In 1985, Athens was Europe's first Cultural Capital. Since that time, there have been Arab and American versions. The advantages of being selected as a cultural capital are enormous: a better image, international name recognition, more visitors, more investments and a boost for the cultural infrastructure. It also fosters greater collaboration between national art organisations and better understanding of one another’s cultures in the regions.

While the cultural capitals in Europe are primarily a project of the European Union, the demand for implementing such a model in Africa came from the art world itself. Steven Sack, Director of Art, Culture and National Heritage for the city of Johannesburg: "The political agenda of this country is a development agenda. The objective is to create job opportunity and social cohesion. People have realised that culture can contribute to this." There are around 11,000 cultural companies in Johannesburg; they employ 180,000 people.

Cities must have a certain standard of living and a favourably disposed city government if the implementation of such an annual capital is to succeed, according to Sack. The multitude of local identities must also have their place in the cultural capital. "Can the Chinese and Pakistani identities in the neighbourhood of Fordsburg be a part of this, and the white sub-cultures in the suburbs, or is this limited exclusively to the African identity?"

As a start, African cities must tell the story of their city to outsiders in brochures and on web sites, Sacks explains. "Then they could proclaim themselves as the dance city, the national heritage city or the gastronomy city, depending on what they excel in." Vaughan Jonas of Visiting Physicians is more sceptical. It is true that the status of Cultural Capital brought in 800 million pounds to Liverpool in 2008. But the investments only lasted briefly. In her opinion, it is better to create culture networks between cities, such as the Creative Cities Network in Canada and the Cultural Cities Network in the UK.