To produce artisans for the future South Africa should study its past

Artisans are crucial for any economy. Shutterstock

South Africa’s government knows that artisans are essential to future growth and job creation. That’s what prompted the country’s Minister of Higher Education and Training to declare a “decade of the artisan”. The campaign’s motto states that it is “cool” to be a 21st century artisan.

What is the reality for modern artisans? Over the past four years I’ve led research for the South African Labour Market Intelligence Partnership to try and find out. We focused on better understanding artisans' working environments and identities. This allowed us to identify some blockages in the production of artisans.

The research has yielded important findings. Firstly, structural inequalities seen elsewhere in the society are replicated in artisanal work and training. These are manifested in participation that is skewed in terms of race, gender, age and language.

The quantitative data reflects a decline in racial inequality measured in terms of formal representation and access to occupations. But our qualitative data shows how the construction of artisanal work and occupations contributes to persistent racial, age and language exclusivity and dominance. These inequalities overlap and are reproduced in complex ways in occupational cultures.

Secondly, the South African labour market may not be able to absorb all the artisans coming through the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) system.

Our findings suggest that South Africa must confront its history more honestly if it’s to prepare the right amount of artisans who have appropriate skills for today’s job market. The country must also carefully examine its prevailing economic parameters to identify constraints and opportunities – and then reflect these in policy making. The existing policy is concerned with training more and more artisans, and improving their skills. There’s also a need to open up more opportunities for young, black and women artisans to shift historical trends of access and success.

But there’s a flip side: data on the employment of craft and related trades workers over the last decade indicates that the labour market for artisans has been contracting. This suggests a disjuncture between policy and the ability of South Africa’s labour market to provide employment.

History cannot be ignored

The history of artisanal training and employment in South Africa has been one of systematic social exclusion and inequality.

Some researchers trace the origins of artisan training, through apprenticeships, to the arrival in South Africa of European settlers in the 1600s. This highlights its colonial roots and links to the system of slavery.

During the apartheid era, the social, political and economic exclusion of black people by the government became even more deeply entrenched. This resulted in very few qualified black artisans in particular sectors of the economy.

Its history illuminates what educationist Volker Wedekind calls the distinctive feature of artisanal training or apprenticeship in South Africa: “right from its earliest incarnation, it was a coercive and exploitative relationship, rather than a benign relationship between a master craftsman and a novice”.

This chequered history has translated into a negative discourse about the modern TVET system. People remain unsettled about artisanal training’s exploitative history even before apartheid. They also remember how it was used as a tool for social engineering during apartheid, keeping black South Africans out of certain careers.

Artisanal trades are viewed as being lower in status than professional qualifications or occupations. This is not distinctive to South Africa. What is unique, though, is the association of artisanal work with a limited set of technical, mostly manufacturing-related trades and occupations. Most countries have a far wider notion of artisanal work.

Luckily, there have been some strong efforts to alter these perceptions. These have involved political, systemic and policy changes.

Raising awareness

The Department of Higher Education and Training has spearheaded these efforts. For instance, in 2001 it introduced learnerships. These differ from apprenticeships: they operate across all sectors and all skills levels, whereas apprenticeships only catered for intermediate level or artisanal skilling. The new system was intended to address the shortcomings of the traditional apprenticeship system, particularly the lack of structured workplace learning.

The department has established Sectoral Education and Training Authorities, or SETAS. These entities, as part of a state driven national skills development system, are tasked with identifying and facilitating skills development in their respective industry sectors.

During the “decade of the artisan”, the department wants to produce 30 000 artisans a year. Currently the country produces about 15 000 a year.

All of this is a good start. South Africa’s economy definitely needs more artisans to support its planned growth trajectory. But the country must more honestly confront the extent of negativity about TVET among its citizens. This requires proper surveys to understand people’s attitudes to certain types of work and occupations. Some national data on attitudes to work exist, but this needs to be significantly strengthened. There also needs to be systemic collection of data about attitudes to occupations.

At least work has been done to ensure a policy framework that interrogates artisanal skills production more broadly than before. Now this must be paired with realistic messaging about what opportunities really exist for artisans.

What does the economic evidence tell us about the future of such work?

The economy matters

Our study evaluated the twentieth century history of artisanal training in South Africa, against a backdrop of the production environment in which the training was provided, the broad economic and political events and policies. It draws on available economic and skills development data up until 2011, with the discussion divided mainly into pre-democratic and democratic eras demarcated by the year 1994, which was when the country underwent the political transition from a racially exclusive system into a democratic one. The overarching finding is that South Africa’s formal economy has grown in the last two decades.

In the same period, primary and secondary sectors like mining and agriculture – which historically strong formal employers of artisans – have declined. This has been accompanied by intensified employment in the tertiary sector, which consists of the wholesale, accommodation, financial, private and public services sectors, for instance. The secondary sector of the economy includes sub industries such as manufacturing, electricity and construction.

Craft and related trades workers – the occupational group where artisanal employment is recorded – experienced the greatest formal (-3,5%) and informal (-4.8%) employment losses between 2005 and 2011.

Given this evidence, hard questions must be asked. Does the labour market has the capacity to fully absorb new artisans. If so, at what rate and in which sectors? Is South Africa training the right kinds of artisans? Are they being trained in the right ways?

Towards a realistic future for artisans

Our research suggests that South Africa must look to its history and its current economic situation so it can engage realistically around how to influence the prevailing discourse on artisanal work and training. If artisanal employment is to be very different from the past, then artisanal skilling - and planning for TVET - will have to change in the future.

The Conversation

Angelique Wildschut is a Senior Research Specialist at the Human Sciences Research Council. The research project from which the data for this paper were extracted was funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training, South Africa. The project forms part of a broader programme of research to underpin the establishment of a credible institutional mechanism for skills planning in the country (the LMIP).