This month, nearly 19 years after Nelson Mandela victoriously led the African National Congress in the fight against apartheid, a South African film will be competing at the 2013 Academy Awards for best live-action short. Asad, a film about Somali refugees featuring a Western Cape cast, was filmed on a micro-budget over the course of a week.
Relative to pervasive issues in the country’s economy and politics, the topic of South Africa’s burgeoning creative landscape has been undervalued, up to now. This upcoming event brings to light the world’s growing attention past its dark past and toward the wealth of creativity and innovation bursting forth from its once-crumbling cities. What is most needed now is a stronger push onto an international stage.
A closer examination at the country’s financial capital, Johannesburg, reveals a diamond in the rough. The city is traditionally overshadowed by Cape Town as a destination spot, thanks to the latter’s natural beauty and beaches. A taxi driver in Cape Town even told me, “Cape Town is where you enjoy life, Johannesburg is where you make money and then die.”
There are projects underway in the inner city that might make him reconsider his ominous words, as Johannesburg attempts to draw visitors with urban tourism. The Maboneng Precinct is an inner city area that is becoming the site of an arts revival and gentrification. Cafés serving exquisite cappuccinos, modern buildings offering airy work spaces, art galleries and theatres featuring local artists, and other staples of a quality cultural commune have been erected since the Precinct’s founding by Jonathan Liebmann in 2008.
The appearance of these high-class facilities and accompanying security have made the inner city a safer place to visit, urging more suburbanites to visit and spend money in this part of town. Once known as the “murder capital of the world”, by 2010, the murder rate in Johannesburg’s CBD had gone down by 27 percent since 2005.
Residential developments in this area have even recently been opened for rent or purchase to the general public. Last month, for instance, the third floor of the Maboneng Precinct’s Fox Street Studios, featuring open-plan living and working spaces, was made available for sale and rental. A few years ago, the idea of developing such a building in that part of town would not even have been entertained. Today, it is considered a viable investment opportunity.
The development of such an arts-focused district is in line with a report by the South African Department of Arts and Culture from 2010, which stated that the visual art attracts very substantial audiences. The Joburg Art Fair, an annual contemporary African art fair attracting continental and international art professionals and collectors, is cited to have exhibited positive yearly growth.
This is just the tip of the iceberg for the country’s creative scene - with more help from its local communities, the government and international supporters, its possibilities for growth are many.
Evidence of South Africa’s growing global appeal is seen in the visit of internationally-renowned fashion photographer and blogger Scott Schuman, the man behind The Sartorialist. Schuman’s photographs of the fashionably dressed at Johannesburg’s Neighbourgoods Market, a weekend rooftop market in the CBD, give glimpses of the creative power of the post-apartheid youth.
By visiting the market, one would not be able to tell that less than 20 years ago the same racial groups easily mingling now were once brutally separated. The human love of art and craft does more to heal wounds of the past than credit is given.
South Africa has already attracted the attention of a foreign cultural entrepreneur. Justin Rhodes, an American, and his South African partner Cameron Munro originally started the Neighbourgoods Market in Cape Town, after they saw a niche for a New York-inspired artisan market.
Woodstock, where the market is located, is now the site of an urban revival, a transformation aided by the presence of the thriving weekend market. The idea of a South African art market featuring fine foods and crafts is obviously popular and profitable, given that the initiative began in 2006 and has since flourished in two cities, drawing growing international interest.
The designation of Cape Town as the next World Design Capital also signifies the readiness of the country to use creativity to tackle its issues. Last week, Alayne Reesberg was named the chief executive officer of Cape Town Design, responsible for the World Design Capital programme implementation.
As its website states, the purpose of the World Design Capital programme is “to highlight the accomplishments of cities that are truly leveraging design as a tool to improve the social, cultural, and economic life of cities” with the use of design-related events throughout the year. The added publicity from the programme will be sure to add to the city’s glamorous appeal.
There is still much, much work that needs to be done for South Africa to overcome its societal, economic and political issues. The country’s ruling political party since the end of apartheid, the ANC is not the same as it was during Mandela’s time and has become a crude caricature of its former self. Serious measures must be instituted in order for real, positive change to take effect.
However, there are pockets in its society where true progress is visible. When one looks at the artistic and culture developments in its cities, they are comparable to some of the finest in the world. The nomination of Asad to the Academy Awards is one indicator of more creative successes to come.
Perhaps, increasing attention to these sectors of South Africa’s society will bolster and refine its image as a destination, increasing revenue from tourism and helping to uplift the country as it moves forward.
Yoonj Kim is a freelance writer and entrepreneur in Los Angeles. She completed her journalism residency at South Africa's e.tv. She is also a Public Voices Junior Fellow with the OpEd Project.
Follow her on Twitter: @YoonjKim
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.