Can art save this city?

artcityHere’s a little throwback post for you. This time last year, I was gearing up for my near-annual trip to Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival. I head down to G’town most years (as often as I can) and have a deep love for the quirky little town and the wonderful arts festival it hosts every year.

In 2015, as part of the festival coverage I had planned, I was working on a project for – a fantastic, but short-lived independent journalism project backed by The Guardian (UK). The article I had proposed was about the economic impact of the Festival, and called “Can art save this city?”.

Below is the article that resulted from this project. I had so much to say, and so little space, but I am reasonably happy with the result, and since Contributoria closed its doors shortly thereafter, I share the article on this platform for your interest.

[Please do not republish without permission.]



A steady trickle of water runs down the pavement. In the cracks and crevices there’s already a green fuzzy algae blooming that tells me this particular stream has been around for months. It criss-crosses the path as I make my way up Hill Street, Grahamstown. The source is just outside the church hall – a hole in the tarmac with upturned paving, and fetid brown water seeping out.

A crowd has gathered with tickets in hand. Inside the hall, actors from the Makana Arts Academy are preparing for the 4pm performance of Waterline. We’re almost a week into the 2015 National Arts Festival, and word has got around: you need to see this one. The play is a workshopped piece of theatre, directed by renowned theatre-maker Rob Murray, about Grahamstown’s on-going water woes.

Makana Municipality – the council that runs Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa – was placed under administration in late 2014. After years of sputtering water supply, issues with refuse collection and electricity provision, accusations of rampant corruption and financial mismanagement, the provincial government stepped in, in a desperate effort to right the ship.

“Sometimes we don’t have water for two months. Sometimes it comes out the tap like mud,” says Grahamstown resident Ziyanda*. “We heard [a rumour] that the municipality had to borrow money from Rhodes to pay staff, and then we see the mayor driving around in a new Mercedes.” She laughs, but her fists are balled.

Ziyanda lives in Joza, a township in Grahamstown. She’s got a job this week, working in a residential home that is playing host to both a temporary clothes shop and a takeaway food stall for the duration of the festival. It’s a small town, and this is their biggest event of the year, creating around 400 temporary jobs every year. According to economists, the “arts fest” brought in over R340 million to the province last year.

Today though, Ziyanda’s not working. She’s got a few hours off, and she wants to see Waterline.

A picture of inequality

The municipal troubles are just the start of the town’s issues. The problem is not that there’s no money in Makana, just that – as in most of South Africa – it is unevenly distributed. Makana is home to around 80,000 people. According to the latest available census data from 2011, 10% of Makana residents live in “informal dwellings” or shacks, a third are employed, and the average household income is less than R30,000 annually.

To put that in perspective, the average bank teller in South Africa can expect to earn R80,000 a year. In 2014, the budget for Makana’s mayor was over R700,000. Around 5% of residents (roughly 4,000 people) earn over R300,000 a year, but 13% (10, 400 people) have no income at all.

Conversely, Grahamstown has some of the most expensive private** schools. It costs over R80,000 to send your son to StAndrews College for a year, 2.6 times the average income for the area. The centrepiece is Rhodes University – a small liberal arts college. Studying for a BA degree at Rhodes, excluding accommodation, costs over R37,000 per year, putting it far out of the reach of your average Grahamstown school-leaver.

The GINI coefficient (a measure of inequality) of South Africa sits at 0.59, making us the most unequal of our “middle income” country peer group. This is despite huge gains made through public spending aimed at lifting people out of extreme poverty, one of the Millenium Development Goals. But as our global focus shifts to the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have to ask “Is taking people out of extreme poverty enough?”

A cash injection

On the stage of the Guy Butler Theatre – the headline stage of the festival – veteran satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys is mid-way through his matinee. He wears a sequined shirt and high heels. Today he is Bambi Kellerman, one of his best-known characters.

“Have you seen the boys with the painted faces on the streets?” Bambi asks us. All across the city, small groups of young black boys have gathered, painted their faces white and placed out a cup, a tin, a hat – they’re begging for a taste of the money that floods in with the visitors every July. Toss them a coin and the scraggly “statues” come to life, tapping out a few dance moves or a song. Everyone’s an artist during festival.

Rhodes economics lecturer Professor Jen Snowball, together with Professor Geoff Antrobus, conducted the economic impact study on the festival. Snowball believes the spinoff benefits, economically speaking, impact the town broadly and stretch beyond the date limits of the festival. But, she cautions, the potential impact is limited because many of the services and goods needed must be brought in from outside of town. “There is no doubt that the [festival] results in some additional employment – both direct and indirect,” she says. “The [festival] office itself employs many temporary helpers, but so do other organisations who provide services to visitors, or to artists, producers and sellers. This has a knock-on effect, known as the multiplier.”

The multiplier means that for every rand spent in town during the festival, R1.9 is created. “The more money that stays in Grahamstown, that is spent and re-spent on goods and services, the bigger the [multiplier] will be. Unfortunately, Grahamstown doesn’t have a very big supply base,” she continues. Money spent on services outside of town present ‘leakages’. “These reduce the size of the multiplier, making the economic impact and job creation potential of the festival smaller. So one way to increase the impact of the festival (and any other event) is to encourage people to ‘buy local’ where at all possible.”

Getting creative

‘Buy local’ is one of the principles of Creative City (CC) – a new initiative established by the festival office. This ambitious project is attempting to address some of the systemic inequalities through strategic, creative and artistic ventures. The media bags for the Festival, for example, were sewn by local women, and the Makana Arts Academy is their flagship project.

Festival CEO Tony Lankester says: “Creative City came about as a result of an increased awareness that we need to do more to help the city on a particular kind of trajectory. Grahamstown is a poor city in a poor province with ridiculously high levels of unemployment. What we do for 11 days a year is great, but there’s 354 other days in a year that also need attention.”

The festival office’s strengths, according to Lankester, lie in their established brand and their partnerships, so for CC they looked for ways to use these. Those partners now include the provincial government, the National Lottery, Makana Municipality, Makana Tourism and Rhodes University. Another significant boost came through the European Union who put forward R6 million in grant funding.

Lankester says: “As dysfunctional as [the municipality] is much of the time, this need is something they recognised as well. Grahamstown is a festival city; It already has a fair amount of creativity going on, so how do we harness this, and herd the cats, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?”

There is now a series of activities that fall under this CC banner. A mass choir concert called Masicule (meaning “Let’s sing” in Xhosa) is one of their most popular efforts. The event was held for the second time this year, and featured choirs from across the city, including one from Ntsika Secondary School – a “no fees” public high school in the township. CC has also employed a visual arts teacher for the school. “Maybe the next William Kentridge is in there, we don’t know,” says Lankester. “But we do know that having creative stimulus in your life helps you in so many other spheres. It helps with maths, with other disciplines. There’s tonnes of research showing this. And because that’s working, we may now look at a similar thing at another school in the township – around music or drama perhaps.”

Madeleine Schoeman is the principal at Ntsika. “Our kids really love singing. With Masicule, this brings another dimension – to perform for the public at the City Hall and on the Guy Butler stage. It is important for town and township people, she says. “There is a huge divide in Grahamstown, but people know Masicule, and they want to go. Creative City has brought people into contact.”

Schoeman also has high praise for the “Foto Fence” amateur photography competition hosted by CC that culminated in a public exhibition. “Town people came to look and realised that there are people on the other side of the divide who are also talented. I think the biggest advantage is that it opens up doors and connections between the two groups. Creative City reaches right down the bottom as well as to the top. If we can just open up the world for these children, give them opportunities. It’s not charity; they must still practice and paint. But they get recognition for their work, for who they are,” adds Schoeman.

Among other things, CC funded the training of 20 sound technicians, and leased land to create an open air cinema – intended as a meeting place for residents from both sides of town. “Trying to break down those barriers is on the agenda. It’s a big ask for a small organisation. You’re asking us to fix something that’s endemic in this country,” says Lankester.

So, can art save Grahamstown?

Not alone, it can’t. Grahamstown – like all of South Africa – needs focused interventions and broad-based economic upliftment, driven by transparent government and a transformed corporate citizenry.

But art can give a 15-year old a creative outlet, and belief in her talents. Art can lead to jobs, backstage and in the sound booths for passionate techies. And it can put our thirst for water, for service delivery and equality, literally on stage.



*not her real name

**Private schools in South Africa are not government-funded. Unlike the UK system, “public school” means government-funded.

Image: Kate Ferreira

Your TED in the clouds: Financial Mail


I recently interviewed Charlie Beuthin from Eduze – a content and digital start-up – for the Financial Mail. Below is an extract. You can read the full article here.

CHARLIE Beuthin, CEO of digital media start-up company Eduze, is a self-described “content guy” who taught himself a bit of coding and development.

He’s not the typical tech entrepreneur. SA-born and UK-raised, Beuthin began his career in music marketing and production with major UK record labels, and was later a full-time touring DJ. Thereafter he found himself back in SA in a content-related role for MTV Africa.

“I realised very quickly that there was a real digital disconnect in Africa. Everyone was superexcited about ‘digital Africa’, with headlines telling us it was amazing. But no-one was dealing with the elephant in the room — the telecom companies. There were huge bottlenecks,” he says. Data in SA is expensive, making it the domain of the middle class.

Beuthin began to think about how to deliver rich educational and entertainment content to data-poor people on the continent. Together with co-founder Marko Nieminen (now Eduze’s chief technology officer), he created Cloud in a Box, or Clox. Clox is a little black box packed with content for users to quickly get access to or download through a smartphone, tablet or computer – with no need for data of their own.

The “no data” workaround means Eduze can reach volume Internet users in Africa, rather than targeting the small, affluent segment that has Wi-Fi and data to burn. Arguably, it is this digital infrastructure solution for content distribution that caught the eye of US-based global content player and nonprofit organisation TED (owners of the TED Talks brand). It certainly wasn’t the business case at the time, suggests Beuthin.

“I had forgotten I had e-mailed [TED] to ask about licensing its content. Two months later I got an apologetic e-mail and a request to set up a call.” On the other side of the line was Deron Triff, TED’s head of media distribution. “I told him about us, but also said we were running out of funds, and would soon close, so thanks for the call but we wouldn’t need that content,” continues Beuthin.

“But Deron said: ‘Before you close, let me speak to [TED curator] Chris Anderson and see if this is something he thinks we may want to help you with.’

“Three months of meetings, due diligence and [discussions with] New York lawyers later, we closed the funding round. Now TED is our partner and has the chairmanship of our board, and we have a licensing agreement for its content and partner content.”

Mobile money could help shut down state graft: Business Day

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In October 2015, I was a guest of MasterCard, at the fascinating MasterCard Innovation Forum in KL, Malaysia.

The rate of change and innovation around digital payments is startling, and exciting, and holds huge opportunity for changing the way we operate – as businesses, consumers, and even as states. Below is an extract of a story I wrote for Business Day (published both in the print edition and on the website) focusing in on one particularly compelling aspect of the conference – financial inclusion:

“MOBILE money systems not only lift people out of poverty, they can also aid in closing down opportunities for state corruption, improving the lives of all.

The World Bank estimates that more than 2-billion adults globally do not have a bank account and remain outside the formal financial sector. In developing economies, only 41% of adults have bank accounts.

Being “banked” offers people certain protection. It enables them to save more effectively, distribute money to dependants more efficiently and across distance, and can be a path to accessing regulated, affordable credit and employment in the formal economy.

It is often a major stepping stone in the transition out of poverty, making it a primary goal for many philanthropic organisations.

SA enjoys relatively high banking penetration for a developing nation, with seven out of 10 adults banked and little gender disparity. Lower down the economic ladder, though, 57.8% of the poorest 40% of South Africans are banked, and only just more than half of young adults.

Two of the biggest drivers of inclusion figures — up from 45% of the population in 2004 — were the introduction of Mzansi accounts (low-fee transactional bank accounts) and later the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) initiative.

According to the FinScope 2014 report, a third of the banked population have Sassa cards (linked to Grindrod Bank accounts) through which they receive state benefits.

Only 14.4% of South African adults have mobile-based accounts, according to the World Bank — and the GSMA Mobile Economy Africa 2015 report pegs this even lower, at 7.6%. In Kenya, where 75% of the population is banked, 58% have mobile accounts and more than 50% of adults use their mobile devices to pay utility accounts.

Digital payment systems allow for a saving of up to 90% on the cost of transactions, according to Sacha Polverini, a Gates Foundation senior programme officer and a panellist at the MasterCard Innovation Forum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, last month.

To read the full article, click here.

Finance company takes cue from nature: Business Day



Now this was an inspiring interview! I recently had the chance to interview academic and enrepreneur Idriss Aberkane for Business Day. The following is an extract of the article, but you can read the full thing on the BDlive website.

IMAGINE an economy with no waste and no unemployment, a market in which the supply meets every demand, and commodity exchange makes both parties happier and wealthier.

Academic and entrepreneur Idriss Aberkane argues that this is no fairytale, an economy like this exists and can be found all around us — in nature. Nature, he tells audiences around SA, is a library. Instead of reading its vast stores of knowledge, humanity is burning them. Despite his knack for a sobering metaphor, Aberkane is earnest and upbeat. The French scientist is in the country as a guest of Alexander Forbes, and we meet after he addressed 175 staff members and fellow young scientists as part of their Leading Conversations series.

His topic is biomimicry and innovation in the knowledge economy. Aberkane, 29, is an entrepreneur with three doctoral degrees — in Geopolitics, Applied Neuroergonomics (how neuroscience applies to ergonomics) and Comparative Literature. He is also the co-founder and CEO of neuroergonomic gaming company Scanderia, and cofounder and board member of Eirin International, an interest-free microcredit company based in Senegal.

The link between his diverse fields of study is a focus on knowledge itself: the geopolitics of knowledge, how neuroscience can change the knowledge economy and comparing western and eastern literature, “concluding that humanity is one big brain (left brain and right brain”.

“The unity of my fields of interest is my life. To me, knowledge is food, and the moment you realise that education is an all-you-can-eat knowledge buffet, you see it differently. I eat a lot. I like knowledge gastronomy; I like fusion cuisine,” he says.

Here’s the link to the full article again:

Health care – A star is born: Financial Mail


I really enjoyed writing this piece for the Financial Mail on the mHealth initiatives being employed locally. Here is a short extract. You can read the full article here. This piece appeared in the print edition (on 28 August 2015) and on the website.

BY 10am the antenatal and postnatal section at Soshanguve Community Health Centre, north of Pretoria, is packed with women — some heavily pregnant, others cradling newborns or shushing toddlers. The women shuffle along a winding series of chairs in a linoleum and facebrick hallway, moving one seat closer to the exam rooms. Deliwe Mahlangu is here with her son Junior for his three-day post-birth check up. It is an obligatory appointment, one of many necessary visits that will keep her here for at least a morning per visit.

Fortunately Mahlangu expects to spend less time at the centre with this her second baby, because she is linked to a program called MomConnect. “I don’t have to run to the clinic every time I have a question. I just ask a question by SMS, and they send the answer to me,” she says.

“If I have pain, or the baby has nappy rash, or whatever, they will say to me ‘just check the temperature’ or tell me ‘you should go to the clinic’.”

MomConnect is one of the health department’s mHealth (mobile-enabled health) services, intended to help reduce maternal and infant mortality, and empower women through the provision of relevant, accurate health information.

Navigating the tricky ethical terrain of big data: Business Day

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This is an extract of a piece I recently wrote on the ethics of personal data commercialisation. This piece appeared in the print edition (on 6 July 2015) and on the website.

TOM Cruise’s 2002 science fiction drama, The Minority Report, involved a world of sensors and machines that knew more about the humans they monitored than they did about themselves.

Interactive billboards at shop entrances scanned shoppers’ eyes before greeting them by name.

Elsewhere, sensors collected information, tracking people’s movements and displaying personalised advertisements. This bombardment of information about goods for purchase, personalised for each consumer, is almost a reality today — thanks to big data.

Data use is not new in marketing; companies have long kept databases on customers’ preferences. What is new is the scale of data now available, and the technological means used for its collection and analysis.

Although much of the data is held by individual companies in standalone databases, rather than the cohesive and ubiquitous collection in the Minority Report, it may well be more widely shared in the near future.

Google any product and advertisements will pop up on the websites you visit afterwards, displaying advertisements for that item. People with loyalty cards from retail chains or who are members of insurance-linked wellness incentive programmes, such as Discovery Vitality, are handing over large amounts of personal data.

Wearable devices — pedometers or training watches — all collect personal data for commercialisation.

“It is the natural progression of where we’ve been going since Gmail first popularised giving up personal information in return for a service,” says Dominic White, chief technology officer at SensePost, an information security firm.

For the full article, visit:

Please back my Contributoria proposal: Can art save this city?

Drostdy Arch, Grahamstown

I’ve proposed a story on Contributoria – a crowdsourcing journalism platform backed by the Guardian (UK). Now I need your help, dear friends and network.

You can see my proposal here:…/201…/556c5e21ffa4900016000040

If you like the sound of my idea, please consider backing me. In order to back it, you need to sign up at (it’s free). You get 50 points every month (on the free account) to assign to proposals you’d like to see turned into articles…

How to