I recently got a job working as an assistant at a very popular Afrikaans art festival in the Free State province, and working there opened my eyes to how clear the line that separates what people call the two economies (social economies) of South Africa is. The reality is that our country, while there has been work to try and unite it, still has two very separate social economies, and this event certainly made this clear.

Before we go further, let me try to explain what I mean by “social economy”. What I mean by social economy is how people interact with each other and the rest of the world, and how they choose what to consume and what not to. Social economy, in this context, means choosing who and what you like, and who and what you don’t.

Now back to my story.

Firstly, the type of work I did while working at the festival, while physically demanding, was relatively easy and straight forward. Every morning, from the 17th to the 21st of July, I, together with four other students from campus, woke-up very early and made my way to Hoffman Square in downtown Bloemfontein, to help the organisers of a public art project set up tables, signs and other equipment that the artists involved would use throughout the day. At the end of each day we would pack everything up. Only to repeat the same process the following day. Like I said, the job was physically demanding, but relatively easy.

Anyway, the project I was working in was called the Public Art Project (or PAP), and was a project that was, to quote the organisers, “aimed at bringing art to the people of Bloemfontein”. While I was initially excited about getting to work on such a project, my bubble was soon burst after realizing what the organisers meant by “bringing art to the people”.

While I thought it commendable that the organisers took an effort to expose more people to what they (the organisers) believed to be art, there were times, while working there, when I found myself quite saddened (and at times really irritated) by the fact that the organisers actually never made an effort to bring art that would cater more to the “tastes” of the people they were aiming to bring it to. It was as if they believed that what the people who occupy Hoffman Square on a daily basis thought to be art – things like traditional music and dancing, local gospel music, etc. – were below the status of the event, and should therefore not be brought in. Instead, the organisers brought in European versions or interpretations of what art is – things like European forms of dancing, music, and paintings – and left behind the more local and “traditional” ones.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that South Africans are not allowed to have different tastes in art, music and other things: far from it, actually. Instead, what I am trying to bring to your attention here is how detached the two social economies that make up South Africa are from each other. It is as if, on the one hand, the more educated and economically free South Africans see the less educated and economically free ones as people they need to educate (or worse, civilize), while, on the other, the later see the former as nothing more than just a bunch of stuck up idiots; as if the two live in two different realities that have nothing to do with each other, and plan to keep it that way for good.

The project also show me how, even though we do live in separate words, only a few (mainly Black) people are able to live in these two realities at the same time, and function in these two social economies with some level of success, while a majority of us will continue with what we know. The sad really is, based on what I saw while working on the Public Art Project, it seems as though we still have a long way to go before anything really changes. Who knows, maybe I’m just overreacting and reading too much into things; and maybe South Africa will one day be one big happy family. But right now, in my eyes, South Africa continues to be one nation that has two very separate and distinct social economies.


Tell us: what kinds of music, dance and art would YOU like to see at a festival near to you?

This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.