The National Arts Festival lost to Grahamstown

Nokwanda Dlamini

The Grahamstown National Arts Festival provides an umbrella body for the vulnerable Grahamstown community that is riddled with division and a failing municipality, bringing together an ensemble cast of talented individuals and groups to create a temporal vision of a rainbow nation. However, this is a very superficial understanding of the festival as the capitalistic aspect of it makes it a playground for the rich and a passing event that usually passes the poor.

Grahamstown presents a rare case of providing the socio-economic and geographic evidence of how deeply embedded the apartheid system was in past and present life. The segregation of both facilities and shopping centres is a testament to that, especially in how there are mostly two outlets of franchise restaurants for example, two KFC’s, two Steers, two Debonair’s and so on. The town has some of the most prestigious and expensive private schools in the country. For example, St Andrews College costs about R216 900 per year. This is contrasted with some of the most the under-privileged schools in the country, for example Khulisile Daniels Secondary School which is listed as the 134th worst school in the country and currently has a 10.8 percent pass rate.

Caught in the middle are Rhodes University and the many students that study there. The students are viewed with both envy and adulation, especially black students as they are made to stand as a representation of black intellectual capacity and future leadership. The envy part is much broader and more complex, the fact that they are students leads to a clichéd belief that they have money, which is unfounded and misguided. This is evidenced by the more than 1600 students who have had their results withheld for the June examination results because they owed more than 50 percent of their fees. Therefore, for the most part Rhodes University, Grahamstown and the people of Grahamstown in general remain divided. That is until The Grahamstown National Arts Festival (NAF), which is supposed to unite them with the intermixed aim of either entertaining or being entertained.

The NAF took place over a period of 11 days from June 30 until July 10. It brought a flood of local, national and international programmes. The programmes range from theatre, comedy, physical theatre, dance, family fare, illusion, performance/publics art, cabaret and music theatre, choral recital music, film, contemporary music, spirit fest and visual art.

Nobathembu Ndzengu (19) spoke about a few performances she watched “I watched Stories Behind Bars and We Salute Madiba, they were both good. Stories Behind Bars was the best because it was about woman behind bars who taught you to be content with what you have. While We Salute Madiba was very cultural even though it was about Xhosa people, it combined all cultures and created a rainbow nation.”

Students Mailaka Gcobo and Andi Shange, both 21 years old and from Johannesburg, said the festival was such an experience that not only would they come back the following year but they would also bring their friends. The festival works as a social cohesion tool that brings to the forum current issues that have yet to take centre stage. These accumulate to over 500 different performances bringing in both new and already known household names such as AKA. However, the entertainment extends to all aspects of the tourism industry involving accommodation establishments such as hotels, bed and breakfasts, all opening their doors to the visitors, usually at highly inflated rates.

This however, is to understand the festival from a very narrow point of view. The festival’s food and entertainment sector stands at the backdrop of a multimillion-rand shopping enterprise. The markets are a huge part of the event. During the festival there was an influx of visitors from across the country and around the world. However, the high prices have led to a slow market for the sellers. The feeling all around the stalls from people who have come across the country to sell their products was that people were not buying. With South Africans’ current state of economic decline especially after Brexit, it makes sense that people would conserve their money especially in consideration of how the costs accumulate during the festival.

“I saw a lot of stalls because I wanted to compare prices, the prices are always too high so you have to negotiate. But I did not like the fact that the sellers would abandon you as a black person the moment they saw a white person” Nobathembu said.

The commercialised aspect of the festival is what in a sense dampened the mood of what the community used to perceive as a unifying force which has now caused more division because the people in the location have been excluded through the allocation of the events at the centre of town. Although many people seem to be excluded, Nobathembu did name a positive aspect of the festival for her small community “It brings in a lot of jobs, but it has changed because it does not involve a lot of people.”

Nobathembu said the festival has changed “It is not the same as the others, it is different, it was dull, because they moved the Village Green to the Great Fields inside Rhodes University, which has made it far and more expensive for the people at the location.” The relocation of certain aspects of the festival has isolated the people in the township by making the festival both inaccessible to them and the people who come to the festival. “I know that prices are expensive in town but we have bed and breakfasts in the location and the prices are cheaper and you get food but people don’t want to experience the township vibe.”

The structure of programme and its difference from previous years has taken away from the people of Grahamstown the little festivities and free programmes that used to make the festival exciting, instead people were forced to hear about the festival from a distance, but have it unavailable for their own entertainment.

Written by: Nokwanda Dlamini