I attended the South African National Arts Festival earlier this month and wrote a critique of the way it exacerbated existing social problems in Grahamstown, the Eastern Cape settlement where it takes place each year. “The town’s structural inheritance of colonialism has not been addressed in two decades of democratic rule,” I wrote. “The Arts Festival gets superimposed on top of this warped social landscape … 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.”

The article attracted a fair amount of criticism, including from Matthew Buckland, a former Mail & Guardian editor who published an angry response on the official NAF website earlier this week. Despite agreeing with the general argument I raised — “the National Arts Festival is indeed an elitist and very niche arts event,” he wrote — Buckland took exception to my approach, complaining that the article lacked balance (twice), failed to offer solutions, lacked context (twice) and was too simplistic.

These are strong words from a seasoned journalist, and much of his advice I have heeded. I could have consulted more widely. Complex narratives ought to be more fully fleshed out. It is important not to alienate people with unduly harsh criticism.

Yet what surprises me about Buckland’s stance, and others like it, is the degree to which it treats privilege as a topic to be debated, rather than a fundamental reality affecting millions of South Africans. This is dangerous, even if framed as constructive writing feedback, as it reinforces the status quo.

Grahamstown with its large informal settlement in the background. Photo credit: A de Klerk.
Grahamstown with its large informal settlement in the background. Photo credit: A de Klerk.

Media fodder and reactionary balance

Here’s a curious phenomenon: hundreds of stories are generated about the Arts Festival each year, but very few mention the stark asymmetries — wealth, power, opportunity — that polarize so many of Grahamstown’s inhabitants, whether temporary or permanent, along broadly racial lines. This does not offer a remotely balanced view of a two-week period in which crime escalates, extra security forces are bussed in, and parents send their children to beg as poorly-dressed mimes on the town’s streets. It ignores the discomfort people feel when three successive parking guards approach them for coins; the way these people (not all of whom are white) shake their heads and commiserate with one other over cups of red wine in the evenings; the repeated anguished conversations about how damn terrible and unfortunate the whole situation is. This, too, is the festival, but it hardly gets reported on. Where are the calls for balance?

Similarly, there’s something strange about insisting that festival organizers be invited to comment on everything that gets written when their media office — who are a pleasure to work with, by the way — releases briefings to precisely that effect every few days. Each of the many positive impacts the festival has gets written about and shared extensively. The festival organizers are not an under-represented group.

Let me repeat that: many positive impacts. I’ve been amazed at how many people have interpreted my comments about Grahamstown as some kind of overarching negation of the festival in its totality, as if pointing out problems associated with its wider social context precludes acknowledging the good it does for a) South African arts development and b) certain sectors of the local economy. This is disingenuous at best. Of course the festival has positive impacts. It just so happens that most people are aware of these already.

For the record, according to figures released by Festival CEO Tony Lankester, this year’s festival generated more income for artists than ever before, a laudable achievement considering the many challenges creative professionals face in South Africa today. As Rhodes University history lecturer Nomalanga Mkhize has argued in her own response to my article, the festival plays an extremely important role in the lives of black artists — I’d expand this set to include traders, set builders, designers, journalists and other cultural workers after a series of thought-provoking discussions on the topic — by acting as a focal point on the national arts map, offering practitioners invaluable exposure and networking opportunities in addition to (potential) monetary profit. This is unquestionably a desirable thing. But the fact remains that the festival, due mostly to historical and structural factors beyond its control, is elitist. Why is this so difficult to accept?

By Witstinkhout (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
1820 Settler Monument, Grahamstown. Photo credit: Witstinkhout via Wikimedia Commons.
Knee-jerks and blame

There is a final dimension to this whole story that deserves attention, and again I’ll accept some responsibility for the way it has played out. My original intention was not to smear Grahamstown or the festival organizers, or indeed to criticize either party directly. Rather, it was to use the festival as a lens onto deeper problems that affect this entire country: the difficulties of transcending apartheid legacy, the daily battles over public space, the ongoing marginalization of the poor. To be clear, the National Arts Festival would probably face these very same issues if it were relocated to Cape Town, Johannesburg or any other South African city. It would face them if it were a different sort of festival altogether. These are the bare bones of the society we live in. They still define so much of the way it moves.

But accepting this, what is the role of the arts, and how much responsibility ought we assign to it? How culpable can we hold places like Grahamstown today for their inheritance of the past, with all its messy contingencies and caveats? Could, and should, the Arts Festival do more to change things? These are important questions that arose from what I suspect were knee-jerk responses by Matthew Buckland and others, who misinterpreted the main thrust of my argument as being uncharitable, cheaply populist or anti-arts.

I’ll be addressing these questions in a separate article, and to that end I welcome input — but for now, dialogue is healthy, and I’m glad people read my work and took time to respond.