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Rethinking the National Arts Festival

Now in its 41st year, the National Arts Festival is underway in Grahamstown. A week after service delivery protests and with a municipal strike looming, once again the spotlight is turned on the stark contrast between people enjoying an arts festival and those in desperate circumstances locked outside

Inevitably, someone is writing that the National Arts Festival (NAF) is an elitist event insensitively embedded in a town renowned for its inequality, an article I have read every year since I first attended in 1986 as a student.

Grahamstown is home to 80 000 residents. During festival time, dozens become survivalist entrepreneurs selling bags of fruit, acting as car guards or simply begging, pleading for coins, harassed by police, brushed off by rude festival patrons, insulted by well-off kids half their age. At the Madhatters Bistro on High Street, diners peek over the picket fence at almost a dozen kids, some extremely young, with faces painted white, posing as statues with empty egg boxes awaiting coins.

There are other stories too. I remember ten years ago, an elderly man in the lane next to the City Hall, who for R5 would play a game of chess with you. Every year, I’d meet a young painter of talent who came to Grahamstown from one of the small surrounding towns for the annual sales boom. I fondly recall the man from landlocked Cookhouse who made beautiful model sailing ships to sell at the festival.

two 5 year-old mimes on Prince Albert Street in Grahamstown. Photo: Rhodes University
Two 5 year-old mimes on Prince Albert Street in Grahamstown. Photo: Rhodes University

The official youth unemployment rate in Grahamstown sits at 42%. Unemployment is possibly as high as 70% if calculated on those capable of working but who cannot find jobs or who have simply given up even looking for employment.

Grahamstown, home to Rhodes University and 11 high schools, including some of the most prestigious in the country, prides itself as a centre of education, and yet, the last census revealed that whereas the national average for school attendance for young people aged between five and 24 had climbed to 73.5%, it had steadily fallen in Grahamstown to a shocking 61.5%. Something is seriously wrong.

It is correct to draw attention to the poverty in Grahamstown, to the bucket toilets, the informal settlements, open sewage, the water problems, the beggars in the streets. It would be foolish not to when there are 500 journalists in town and the place is under the national spotlight.

It is right to reiterate that because of our apartheid legacy, the wealthy (which is very white in Grahamstown) own the means of production – the houses for rental, the stores and shops, the restaurants and so forth – and that they therefore accumulate a considerable amount of the money generated by the festival.

But none of this, not the poverty and lack of service delivery (the municipality had to be placed under administration last year) nor the wealth in a few hands is the fault of the festival. It is an arts festival, not a government. There is a tendency in South Africa to blame festivals (and statues and symbols for that matter) for the failings of the country, as if this would fix things.

Grahamstown resident queue at a natural spring  for water following the drying up of taps attributed to mismanagement of municipal funds. Photo: David MacGregor/DispatchLive
Grahamstown resident queue at a natural spring for water following the drying up of taps attributed to mismanagement of municipal funds. Photo: David MacGregor/DispatchLive

Which brings me to the next accusation made every year against the festival – that it is “elitist”. It is a misplaced, almost meaningless word, a cheap shot at an easy target. If one lives in an illiterate society, then being able to read is elitist. Accusations of elitism and “fuck art” reveal a lack of arts literacy rather than any meaningful comment on the festival. Most of what is presented at the festival, including community theatre, industrial theatre, “edutaintments”, children’s theatre, standup comedy, jazz, contemporary music, magic shows – is hardly highbrow art. There are 628 productions and 3000 performances.

If by elitism one means economically privileged patrons attending activities inaccessible to the majority, then most things including shopping at Woolworths also qualify as elitist in South Africa.

Critics should take a second look. In addition to more public art and free experiences, the festival does offer R250 000 worth of tickets gratis to people who wish to attend but cannot afford the tickets. The festival audience is no longer the bourgeoisie of the old days. There has been a significant shift. Today’s festinos are a very poor example if you’re looking for conspicuous consumption or people with a superiority complex. South Africa’s real rich have always been spectacularly uninterested in art.

The audience is now 40% black, but we are a divided nation in many ways. It is quite possible to see 20 shows at the festival with hardly a black face, and it is just as possible to see 20 shows with not a single white face in the audience.

The festival is a national event; Grahamstown is its host, not its be all and end all. Artists come from everywhere in South Africa and from 29 countries besides, including productions this year from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana, Angola, Benin, DRC, Ghana, Madagascar, Nigeria, Rwanda and Senegal.

Photo: RoomsforAfrica.com
Photo: RoomsforAfrica.com

For many community theatre groups and marginal black artists who cannot get into the mainstream theatres, the festival is an annual means to funds from the National Arts Council and an opportunity to present their work on a national platform. I know of individuals who largely thanks to this exposure went on to perform internationally.

Festival Director Ismael Mahomed says much of the media criticism is “uninformed about the dynamics of the arts sector” and ignorant of “the complexities of how the arts get produced in this country”.

The Remix residency programme and the Arena stage initiatives of the festival are bearing fruit for emerging artists. The festival also has connections to various community festivals such as Zabalaza; its nurturing role is going beyond what one sees on the stages in Grahamstown.

Mahomed points out that the Fringe might seem like a wild free for all, but it is a much more legitimate space than many of the state theatres and receiving houses which have a single artistic director as the arbiter of what culture is. The state theatres also suffer from far more baggage – cultural, spatial and economic barriers.

Still, the festival is an event with a R30 million budget surrounded by systemic pauperisation. What can it do within its remit?

There are obvious things that art does, from promoting progressive values and contemplating the state of the nation to stimulating mathematical skills in children through music and opening eyes. To this end, the festival uses its skills at arranging festivals and its ability to attract funders such as the European Union, to run or support a number of local projects during the year, among them the Foto Fence, the Fingo Festival, the Cinema Under the Stars, the Puku storytelling festival, and the Masicule mass choir event.

The Masicule Mass Choir Performs at The Monument  in Grahamstown. Photo: Louisa Feita
The Masicule Mass Choir Performs at The Monument in Grahamstown. Photo: Louisa Feita

Many locals have been trained as technicians, given a career track and moved on to full time employment.

I recall some early, tentative initiatives such as mentoring the many kids who pose as statues for coins to be better performers, but wasn’t that like teaching kids to be more effective beggars?

I put it to the festival directors: what is the festival doing to spread the largesse it attracts?

Festival CEO Tony Lankester was quick to point out that the festival runs only a 0.33% surplus (R100 000). It isn’t some lucrative corporation that can put millions into a social responsibility programme. But it can prioritise where it spends its money.

For the first time, the shuttles will be run by a local taxi outfit. It might only be R1000 per vehicle per day, but it’s staying in the town. The bags – the best festival bags I can remember – have also been locally made for the first time.

Lankester says the festival is in the process of getting its BEE certification and hopes it will be granted soon. Ironically, as happens with government bureaucracy, most of the township operators the festival uses, such as township based caterers for its functions, do not have BEE certification and therefore don’t qualify for the festival’s BEE procurement points.

The NAF employs 400 people for the festival period, for 75% of them it is there only job for the year. According to StatsSA, 13% of households have no income, a further 10% of households have an income of less than R9,600.

The Makana Township Tourism Initiative tries to dovetail with the NAF. According to the last available figures, in 2013 there were 36 township accommodation establishments (now there are 52) which hosted 200 guests, 609 bed nights and brought in R186 000.

The 2013 economic impact study commissioned from Rhodes University Economics Department and based on studies used in Edinburgh estimated the National Arts Festival as adding R90 million to the GDP of the City of Grahamstown. The NAF’s impact on the province is several factors greater. In terms of direct spend, non-Eastern Cape visitors to the NAF spent R63 million and producers spend a further R16 million at the festival.

The study also tried to measure for the first time ‘the non-market socio-cultural impacts of the festival’. Perhaps the methodology used needs scrutiny, but surprisingly the study found that the overwhelming majority of respondents thought the festival had a positive effect on social cohesion.

But Lankester concedes: “We cannot be complacent. We are happy for the engagement. We’re doing lots already, but it is never enough.”

I ask Mahomed about the demographics. The festival artistic committee has a white majority, the board of directors not.

Mahomed says that the numbers game – the colour of the payroll and the management – which is the route that most arts institutions in South Africa have adopted, is a “superficial one”. Far more important than window dressing, says Mahomed, is how the content is transformed and how that becomes the driving force for change. It needs to happen through the art.

The old audience cannot be simply switched off either, since it is their financial spend that has kept the festival sustainable, says Mahomed. Far better is cross-pollination, exposing the whole spectrum of the audience to new experiences and challenging ideas, from the demystification of such things as the orchestra and contemporary dance featured in the family fare programme to taking the idle rich down to see a community drama about love in the Limpopo. He can see the shift happening.

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