Soweto born dancer, choreographer and business man Greg Maqoma, founder of the Vuyani Dance Theatre, epitomises ‘social entrepreneurship’ – bringing new hope for young the South Africans.
South Africa’s demon statistics of inequality and unemployment are well known, with 50% of young people between the ages of 15 and 35 unemployed, and the gap between rich and poor widening. A relatively new concept that has come to the fore in South Africa’s business landscape, with an amazing potential to help bridge that gap, is social entrepreneurship.
Social entrepreneurship as a concept holds the power to fast track socio-economic change. According to Kerryn Krige, Programme Manager for the Network of Social Entrepreneurs at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, our public rhetoric is of a sluggish economy that needs to be shocked out of its lethargy and into financial growth that tackles our economy and fast-tracks our social development. But what we’re missing, says Krige, is the how, the economic map and compass that have a route clearly marked, with directions and hopefully a few pit stops for rest and recovery along the way.
This is why the topic of social entrepreneurship offers promise in South Africa in that it focuses on both social and economic development, recognising that the one cannot happen without the other. Kerryn says a lot of this has been happening recently, as both business and government is beginning to realise the potential of the concept as it combines the best of business, with that of civil society, encouraging people to see opportunity in their communities, and to develop income streams through it.
One such an example is the success story of international dancer and choreographer Greg Maqoma, which highlights the elements of social entrepreneurship, which offers value in South Africa.
Maqoma founded the Vuyani Dance Theatre (VDT ) 16 years ago and today the organisation exists to identify, nurture and develop excellent dancing talent. Vuyani works in schools across the country, teaching and training young talent. On stage, the company is highly successful, touring internationally and winning a multitude of awards. It is this on-stage excellence that funds the organisation’s social mission, allowing the organisation to balance its traditional grant-funding base with income.
His passion, enthusiasm and dedications are simply contagious and have inspired many other success stories in his community, as well as across its boarders.
Talking to BBQ on the topic social entrepreneurship, Maqoma agrees that social entrepreneurship offers promise in South Africa in that it focuses on both social and economic development.
“South Africa is still very much fragmented in its dealings with economic reform, worsened by the high unemployment rates and the increasing gap between the rich and poor. We cannot focus solely on economic development without addressing social development. The need to create employment and a better life for our people should be the central objective of the economic policy in all spheres of government and the private sector - and for us working in the social space. In many instances social entrepreneurship merges skills development, social development as well as economic development in order to achieve a sustainable economic system. At Vuyani we function with this principle: A dancer needs to master the skill of dancing in order for them to change either their social economic circumstances or influence some change by addressing a social problem, turning it into product that has economic and social value.
“I think social entrepreneurship speaks independently from grants. I view grants as recycled money, but when it is coupled with a business strategy, then change is immutable and certainly allows growth to manifest within the socio-economic space. And there are those good courses that will always be fully dependent on grants - like the feeding scheme or a home for abandoned children for instance. I however also believe that some sort of business intervention should be in place and it is not always about selling a product, but it can be about how to set in place mechanisms for those benefiting from the course to play a positive benefactor role when they are in a position to contribute back to the course,” he says.
The devoted entrepreneur, who, like his father (a very strong and family orientated man) who passed away six years ago, places strong emphasis on people and family values, says as he travels a lot, and is seldom around to enjoy time with family and friends, he ensures that when he is home, he makes time for his team and his family. He speaks emotionally about spending time with his widowed mother and proudly tells us how he recently helped her to finish a landscaping project at his family house in Soweto, where she still lives with his two younger brothers.
Asked about the importance of his projects and the social impact of it on his own community, he says he sees a change in his family. “My siblings now have a better education. I have set up a family education fund to assist those in the family who want to further their education. I also see many young dancers who knock at my door, mostly with just a suitcase in their hands, with a one-way ticket from the Eastern Cape or Mpumalanga, and all they want to do is dance. It’s rewarding to see mothers and fathers coming to me to tell me that they want their children to continue to dance because they have seen a change in their school grades and personality. More than anything, social-entrepreneurship gives hope to communities and sets up a possibility for something great to happen. Vuyani has many alumni’s that are running their own projects in their communities with great success and we continue to mentor them going forward.”
As for Vuyani, Maqoma says he believes his company is on the right path. “Any non-profit organisation will be terrified of venturing into becoming a profitable company. What made the difference in our case is that we have in place a committed board of directors working around the clock with our process to transform the NPO landscape and align the business. They also understand that we need to strike a balance and understand and maintain the vision of creating a difference within the arts and eventually being part of the change we desire by creating sustainable jobs in the arts and contribute to the country’s GDP. We are on that path now and we continue to reduce our dependency on grants, but we also have to be clear that we will never be completely grant-independent. Therefore we have maintained the Vuyani NPO, which is our CSI element, but we have reduced our grant dependency quite significantly.
“For inspiration I look at for instance international companies like the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre which both development and professional work. Usually they work in a very competitive environment. I am inspired by their resilience and as a black-founded dance company to have survived many years and still be leading, is extraordinary. I look at them and then I look at Vuyani and I realise that we are achieving the small goals and exceeding our expectations – in our young 16 years as a company. Our 2020 vision is to build a state of the art dance facility. That will be our legacy and a gift to the communities we serve. I also look at companies like Apple who are about product competiveness – every new product produced must push boundaries,” Maqoma says.
But what really makes Vuyani such a prime example of social entrepreneurship is the fact that it has gone full circle. Today Maqoma’s efforts have lead to many alumni who have gone back to their own communities to make a difference. “These people also want to contribute by creating dance companies in their communities. We encourage this, as long as they understand the principle behind it.”
One such an example is Sizweli, a School of the Deaf in Soweto, which they worked on for about five years. Because dance uses non-verbal expression this was extremely successful and the group went on to win awards and entered competitions – and nobody in the audience, or even the judges, knew that they were deaf.
Talking about the importance of ploughing back, the modest Maqoma believes that the privileges and opportunities awarded to him cannot reach their full potential and value if he only keeps them to himself.
“By sharing, I am able to see those opportunities multiply through the outreach projects we undertake. When I created Vuyani Dance Theatre it was with a clear vision of creating a space for artists to come together to inspire each other. That vision has grown to a state where when those artists have been given the privilege of a space and a career path, they also have to immediately share the knowledge with a community they come from. Every dancer that is signed on a full-time contract at Vuyani needs to understand the principle of giving back and awarding the privilege to others who are less fortunate. We are therefore committed to the teaching of dance to schools and the communities we serve. It is also an opportunity for our dancers to test their teaching and choreographic skills. It is our way to evaluate their understanding of concepts and technical abilities.
“We embark on our outreach projects not for the funder, as a matter of fact VDT’s outreach project is self-funded. It is our CSI project and the money we make from performances is ploughed back to developing the state of dance in general. It is something we take very seriously. This also speaks to audience development, as we are exposing young people to the arts at a young age, even if they decide that dance is not their career path. What we do know is that we have given that child an opportunity to embody the experience and chances are that they will support the arts in the future.”
He says a sound business ethos is one of the most important things when running a company or organisation. On the top of his list in this regard, is social responsibility. “When you look at corporate companies, this will mostly be the last on the list. I think it should be the first thing we think about as any business is about the people, therefore placing a social responsibility at the top of the agenda is prime. This shows our commitment to society. We are about transformation – and that is what any business should be addressing. We are committed to our staff as we transform our staff members, who we refer to as our assets, because through them we are able to directly generate a product.
Other aspects contributing to his business ethos include transparency, owning up to the vision and communication.
Asked how he thinks his efforts have prompted others to take charge of their own community progress (and to develop an income stream that supports its work), he says the project has encouraged others to take similar initiatives in their communities in terms of teaching and developing small projects. “We are the first contemporary dance company to look at a social-enterprise as part of our operations and I am glad to see other companies looking at us as a case study to change their way of business operation. What I stress with our protégés is that every project they undertake must have a business acumen, meaning they must have a business plan at hand. It is far more pleasing when you are able to tell a funder that you need X amount to make a project that will triple your investment in X number of years.”
Passionately elaborating on how can we use the arts as a form of sustainable job creation, Maqoma says the performing arts in particular are often about an end-product; you produce a play, a dance, a music album or a film.
“This products have value and through understanding their value, we are able to put them out there for public consumption. After all, we create works to engage the public. What we have not as yet mastered, especially in the South African market, is brand communication that the arts carry value that should be paid for. This especially applies for contemporary dance, which is one of the marginalised art forms. In contrast, in Europe, South African dance is regarded as incredibly sophisticated and contemporary dance as innovative and bold.
“Presently 60% of our income is from international profiling and this allows us to keep the dancers busy, therefore sustaining jobs. However, we need to position our brands better within the South African market to strike a balance,” he concludes.