Bellagio Publishing Network  

 BPN Newsletter Issue No 24, December 1998 


South African print industries cluster

Kate McCallum
Kate McCallum is Chair, Publishers' Association of South Africa and Managing Director, Oxford University Press Southern Africa, PO Box 12119, N1 City, 7463 Cape Town, South Africa. Tel +27 21 595 4400, fax +27 21 595 4431, e-mail:

An exciting initiative has been taking place quietly in South Africa over the past year which has seen the various links in the print supply chain - publishers, booksellers, printers, paper manufacturers, newspapers and magazines - working together formally and harmoniously to establish a print industries cluster.

Although the publishers and booksellers have traditionally worked closely, relations between the links in the supply chain have not always been good. In fact it was clashes over issues such as protective import duties on paper, a proposed 20 per cent duty on imported books, and the crisis in educational publishing which brought the various industries in the book chain around the table. In the resulting discussions it became clear that there was a great deal to be gained by sharing information, understanding the chain better, and working together more closely on matters of common interest.

At the same time as closer working relationships were being forged in areas of the book chain, the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology (DACST) devised its Cultural Industries Growth Strategy, which dovetailed with the cluster study initiative established by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Both were a recognition of the need for an overall goal of sustainable economic growth and development, and for industry-led responses to address the obstacles to achieving this. If the various industries were to become internationally competitive, they had to co-operate in order to compete. Industries within the book chain recognised that instead of disputing the relative slices of the `print pie', each would benefit if the `print pie' as a whole was increased. No company or industry could do this on their own. What was required was a commitment to increasing the number of readers in the country, and to creating a book reading culture, since it would be only through an enlarged market that the industry would ever attain the economies of scale that allow low prices, which in turn encourage discretionary purchases of printed material.

A DTI briefing in November 1997 on cluster initiatives in other countries emphasised that clusters were successful when they were private-sector rather than government led; that it was `champions' who made the difference - committed individuals who could make things happen; and that they were most effective when they tackled not `the big smelly questions'- although these need to be identified - but time-bound, quantifiable objectives that could be achieved within a three-year period.

At that meeting, listening to other industries such as the wool and mohair industry and the wheat, flour and milling industry relate their experiences of establishing clusters, it was encouraging to realise that the print industries were already half-way down the track: there was already sectoral collaboration on a number of initiatives, trust and good relations had already been established, and industry associations had been long established and operational. In fact three of the associations, the Publishers' Association of South Africa (PASA), the Printing Industries Federation of South Africa (PIFSA) and the Print Media Association (PMA) already had full-time secretariats, able to handle much of the burden of communication, information-sharing, and organisation. All in all, the conditions and timing were right for the formation of a print industries cluster.

The first meeting, co-ordinated by PASA in February 1998 in Johannesburg, agreed to establish a cluster, elected a steering committee, and formulated the broad outline of the cluster's structure, working procedures and objectives.

In defining who was part of the cluster, the meeting agreed that a common function of all the industries was the provision of information, education and entertainment based on publishing, origination and processing of primarily print content, so including books, magazines, newspapers, electronic publishing, and multimedia, but excluding broadcasting, telecommunications and film.

DTI, DACST, and the industries had differing priorities but agreed that their objectives were:

  • to ensure the survival of the print chain at a particularly precarious time in South Africa's history
  • to facilitate, stimulate, and promote growth in the print chain (which could be achieved only through a developmental strategy of `growing' the market)
  • to develop and grow the South African reading market
  • to stimulate and develop South African national culture and identity, through the development of writing, literary expression and literature.

What was preventing South Africa, a country of some 40 million people, from having a large population of readers and buyers of printed material? There are essentially four factors:

  • skills to read print, i.e. low literacy levels
  • means to buy print, i.e. low income and low levels of affluence
  • access to print, i.e. lack of retail outlets and libraries
  • desire for print, i.e. lack of a reading culture or book hunger.

The meeting talked about what was achievable for a relatively small group of people within a limited time, and felt that the first two factors were beyond their scope since these depend so heavily on the education system and economic policy (although there is potential for making a contribution in both these areas in, for example, creating employment through franchised newsagent kiosks). However, they felt they could do a great deal in the last two factors.

A second meeting in Cape Town in May 1998 elected a council of 12, consisting of two representatives from each of the industry associations: PASA, SABA (South African Booksellers' Association), PIFSA, PAMSA (Paper Manufacturers Association of South African), PMA, and one representative each from DACST and the DTI.

The print industries cluster also identified six provisional working groups and their `champions' in statistics, access to books - library, access to books - retail, advocacy - education, efficiency of the supply chain, and copyright; and set their provisional objectives.

The print industries cluster aims to involve a broader cross-section of people, including the relevant trade unions, in the individual working groups so that, for example, the librarians' association and writers' association will be key players in the working group on libraries.

Where to from here? Once working groups' composition and their role in relation to the council are decided, 1999 should see them begin work.

On a practical level there are several problems that the print industries cluster will have to overcome:

The first is lack of resources. Apart from the fact that most of the industries and the companies are classified as small, medium and micro enterprises and therefore suffer from the common problems of being under-resourced, most individuals involved in the cluster have a demanding full-time job which has a prior claim on their time. Most also voluntarily hold elected office in their representative associations, so the cluster initiative represents a third set of demands on their time. Inevitably it will take a lower priority, and therefore run the risk of losing momentum. As the cluster grows it will need to employ a full-time co-ordinator to maintain momentum and provide support. At this stage none of the industries can spare funds for such a position.

There is an inevitable tension between the need to include as wide and representative a range of people and interest groups as possible, and the need to keep the cluster and working groups to manageable sizes.

Since all the industries operate nationally, and are spread around the country, the logistics and expense of operating over a distance limit the number of meetings. The cluster will meet at least quarterly, when PASA and PIFSA have their trade meetings, alternating the venue between Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Identifying the right `champions' both internally and from outside the cluster is critical, since these are the people who will make things happen. However, they often are the most stretched because of their skills and experience.

Although it may seem that initiatives have waited for the cluster, in reality a number of initiatives are already in place, or have begun in parallel with the cluster. Part of the task of the cluster will be to draw them together so that efforts are not duplicated.

Ultimately we all recognise that we do not operate in isolation: we're part of industries, supply chains, economies, countries. Alone we cannot shape our environment; jointly we bring more influence to bear. People's commitment to the process and interest in it have been encouraging, and have helped to restore a sense of confidence in the industry at this difficult time in its history. [BPN, No. 24, 1998, p 9.]

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