There is more prestik and sticky tape in Grahamstown right now than anywhere else in South Africa. The 40th National Arts Festival has ended and the walls along the main streets and outside the venues are smothered in posters. There are posters in the trees, posters on the dustbins, posters on the pavements. Posters advertising theatre, stand-up comedy, live music, guided art tours and improvisational dance. Huge posters with glossy photographs and slick fonts, cheap home-printed posters, new posters on top of old posters, entire ecosystems of posters, enough posters to fill entire libraries, all competing for your ticket-buying attention.

But step across Hill Street — a narrow road that slices through the historic town centre — and the swarm of posters subsides. The walls are emptier: sparse graffiti, furniture store signs, adverts for driving lessons and traditional healers, but not for student drama productions, film screenings or jazz.

This is where the festival ends and the rest of Grahamstown begins.

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Posters at South Africa’s 40th National Arts Festival, which ended last Sunday.

The National Arts Festival, South Africa’s premier cultural event, takes place here for two weeks each year, attracting thousands of visitors from across the country. Accommodation books out months in advance; temporary bars spring up; restaurants hire extra staff. Supermarkets accustomed to servicing the circumscribed needs of students (this is a university town) stock up on additional food and liquor. Everybody waits for the inevitable surge in money, bustle and traffic.

The cultural and economic benefits associated with all this activity are extremely unevenly distributed, though, excluding the majority of the town’s population and reducing them to the role of distant spectators. This is because Grahamstown is a deeply divided settlement, an elite space operating within a much bigger context of chronic unemployment and poverty. The town’s structural inheritance of colonialism — class linked to race mapped tightly to geographical location — has not been addressed in two decades of democratic rule, leaving intact the disturbingly familiar South African pattern of a wealthy white area flanked by a marginalized black area, patrolled at the margins by private security firms and the police.

Every winter, the Arts Festival gets superimposed on top of this warped social landscape, reinforcing existing divides in spite of its broadly progressive thrust. By concentrating wealth and privilege in a small corner of town the festival exacerbates tensions between haves and have-nots, leading to increased conflict over access and public space. It excludes people while speaking of the need to be inclusive, and pushes much of the diversity it purports to celebrate to the periphery.

Art thrives on paradox, they say.

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Protest graffiti outside the NG Kerk, a church converted into a theater venue for the duration of the festival.

On the first weekend of the festival some graffiti appeared amidst the posters. “Fuck art,” read one scrawl. “Festival of the rich,” read another. Who was responsible? I asked Ayanda Kota, founding member of local grassroots activist organisation the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM), what he thought.

“We don’t know,” he told me, “but we support the message. This festival is elitist and excludes most people who live here.”

A journalist friend had introduced us, describing Kota’s views as “important”. I interviewed him at the UPM offices, a sparsely furnished unit in a row of semi-detached houses located a few blocks east of the cathedral.

“If you’re poor then the festival is stressful,” he said. “It undermines your humanity. You see people participating — eating, drinking, purchasing things — but all you can do is watch. You want to join in but you can’t.”

Being black or working class — he used the terms interchangeably — also framed people as criminals on the town’s streets, he said, further diminishing their sense of self-worth.“Like any elite space this festival is heavily policed. You’re automatically seen as a suspect. If you walk around too long someone will start following you. It’s a deeply alienating experience.”

When I asked if people resented the festival because of this he gave two different answers. “We have become too passive,” he told me. “We live with our pain and we suffer in silence. A lot of people stay away completely to avoid feeling inferior. But others see it as an opportunity to do crime. That’s the only way for them to participate. It’s a way for them to vent their frustrations and demand a stake in this society.”

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Mimes: white-painted faces of a tiny informal economy.

Every day in High Street groups of small boys stand motionless outside the restaurants, their faces painted white. Every so often passers-by drop coins in the plastic containers at their feet. Ostensibly the boys are mimes, though actually they’re beggars dressed in traditional Xhosa outfits or ruined suits, fooling around for change. Many are sent by their parents, their sad roleplaying one of the few ways Grahamstown’s poor can earn money at the festival. “Think what this does to them,” Kota said. “Think what it teaches children about being black in South Africa today.”

With more than 70% of the town’s 110 000 residents unemployed — the official figure is 32.5%, although this excludes people who have given up looking for work — the boys represent the most prominent sector of a tiny informal economy that includes fruit sellers, car guards, drug pushers and petty thieves, all hustling on the fringes of a lucrative cultural tourism industry. According to a press release circulated midway through the festival, more tickets had been sold this year than by the same point in 2013, netting a 12% increase in overall revenue. “We’re confident that we will see healthy growth in the final tally,” Arts Festival CEO Tony Lankester commented, “which, of course, is very gratifying.”

But with such little penetration to the areas of Grahamstown that need economic development most, how valuable is this revenue stream? How sustainable is the festival when social marginalization, widened inequality and increased conflict are among its most proximate effects?

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Informal economy citrus at the base of a British Settler monument.

Nobody puts up posters where they will have no impact. Doing so would be a waste of time and money. And so the posters stop at Hill Street, which passes the front doors of an austere cathedral. Beside the cathedral is a market where traders sell food, clothing and trinkets. Beyond the market is a traffic circle where the long-distance buses leave. Walk on and you enter a poor neighbourhood with crumbling buildings and piles of rubbish on the streets. A little further, men pick roof beams from the carcass of an abandoned train station, while below them workers from the township cross the tracks and walk home. The candlelit eateries of High Street are less than a kilometer away.

Posters often lie, but in Grahamstown they gesture towards uncomfortable truth.

All photographs by Kimon de Greef unless stated.