How do we tell the story of economic policy in South Africa? As an analyst my tools are statistics and substantiation, and even sometimes a case study. Steve Mandy, a fashion artist, tells the story through art.
His exhibition, which I viewed only online, tells a more accessible story. It offers a profound and demanding reflection of the clothing industry, and more broadly, the South African economy. I requested permission to use some of the images so he called and explained the motivation behind his exhibition “Local Obsessions”. The aspect that stood out for me was using what is available to develop and fund the exhibition, and how the exhibition appeals to an audience outside the traditional audiences that attend art exhibitions. This is a typical case of an entrepreneur using the available inputs to explore an existing opportunity.
“This exhibition builds on the concept of international super monopolies and their involvement in African economic markets. This opaque influence infiltrates African countries with great subversive skill and the effects are not apparent to the general consumer. I have used ‘fashion’ as a metaphor for all industries affected by foreign involvement and symbolised foreign intervention with Chinese theatrical masks which are hidden within images.”
Though, I am not a sophisticated art-goer, I have always appreciated the artist’s perspective. In this case, the exhibition invites us to think and act about our deeper social and economic issues. It raises three broader issues for economic policy in South Africa.
The exhibition asks South Africans to be more consciousness consumers, the idea being that buying South African helps us to grow an industry. There have been several attempts to shift buying decisions towards South African products. The challenge for businesses, however, remains providing value to customers, both in terms of quality and price. “Local Obsession” shows that there are strong possibilities for providing both affordable and high-quality clothing products locally. In this sense, it provides a much more imaginative restatement of the traditional debate on low-cost imports in South Africa which asks: Do poor people benefit more from cheaper products — that make South Africans factories unviable — or do they benefit from having jobs in factories? The exhibition turns this question around: What are the possibilities for creating a viable clothing industry that provides good, quality goods and serves a market effectively.
At first blush, I was left wondering what on earth does resin and steel have to do with clothing. Here again, the exhibition seeks to show how unconventional inputs are crafted into products, with a bit of imagination. But it raises a deeper insight: producing internationally competitive products requires value chains that give fair value and price to businesses, that is if South African businesses are to create awesome products, which are potentially job creating. The links and innovation in other parts of the economy create new inputs, and as such scream out for conversion into unexpected opportunity — something we very often glance over in developing economic policy.
Make it happen locally
There is obviously too much rah-rah in the entrepreneurial world and huge structural challenges for South African entrepreneurs. But as Steve mentioned in our chat, he found ways to use what existed to create the exhibition. This included partnering with designers, manufacturers and involving communities in the process. Granted, the structure of the economy is an obstacle for entrepreneurs but there is a lesson for those struggling to start up (that includes me) — we can learn a lesson or two.
The lesson is: make a plan. In fact, it shows that if we think creatively and logically at the same time, the inputs might be available. In sum, it raises some important and valid public-policy issues in an accessible and beautiful way. Personally, it provided both a distraction and space to think about the South African conversation.
This first appeared on my blog.