A performing arts festivals speaks some uncomfortable truths about contemporary South Africa

Grahamstown, the small university city that hosts South Africa’s annual National Festival of the Arts each year, is historically a frontier town—the meeting place in the 19th century between the British Empire and the Xhosa nation, before the latter was annexed, creating the present-day Eastern Cape province. Today Grahamstown retains a “frontier” ambience, something this year’s festival held between June 30 and July 10 seemed to accentuate.

Even today the city exists on the frontier between South Africa’s past and future. It is a microcosm of contemporary South Africa. The trappings of modernity and even the postmodern future—symbolized by the university and an experimental wind farm that generates the city’s electricity independent of the national power grid—coexist with the many problems of present-day South Africa, including a dysfunctional, financially bankrupt city council and a precarious water supply that provides intermittent and marginally potable water that has to be augmented by more drinkable water the citizens get from a natural spring on one of the hills. This is a place of excellent education (including some of the best schools in the country) and internet connectivity, troubled all the same by massive unemployment.

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Outside of the schools and Rhodes University (its name, commemorating a famous colonialist, is itself contested), the festival is the city’s major temporary source of employment. Now even that boost has been made uncertain by the national economy. In good economic times, the arts festival generates large revenues; in bad times (like now) the fewer visitors to “Festival” (as it’s called by locals and visitors alike) suggest the limits of disposable income in South Africa.

The Grahamstown festival mirrors the state of the nation—one foot in the past and one in the future. Classical Western theater, music and dance—the cultural heritage of Europe transposed to Africa—jostle with their African counterparts for the attention of festival patrons. At times, too, there is a synthesis of traditions—exemplified for me by a dramatic adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm by a group of young black women actors.

The play—mostly in English and Zulu—follows Orwell’s political satire faithfully but offers a uniquely contemporary South African spin on the novel: the villain Napoleon and his cabal of fellow pigs are clearly modeled on President Jacob Zuma and his faction of the African National Congress currently in power. Such liberties with the classic fable about the descent of the Soviet Union into Stalinism and tyranny reflect an appropriation of a Western classic for present-day South Africa and exemplifies what this year’s Grahamstown festival tried to do in other areas: create a synthesis of dramatic, musical and artistic traditions that coexist in our multicultural society.

Other plays—and I emphasize theater because it was my focus of interest, rather than music or dance, this year—look to South Africa’s past. “Ruth First: 117 Days,” based on a memoir, was a superb one-woman play about the detention without trial of a white anti-apartheid activist in the 1960s. “OoMaSiSulu” drew upon the biography of another female hero of the liberation struggle, Albertina Sisulu, for its inspiration.

Both plays in their particular ways highlighted the role of women in South Africa’s struggle for democracy. And both emphasized moral values—integrity, justice, humanity and dignity—that forced audiences to ask uncomfortable questions about the lack of these characteristics in present-day South Africa, with the lingering implication: What of our future as a society?

Other works reflected more mainstream themes, often connected with global traditions in the arts. A recently discovered and seldom-performed play by the American writer Tennessee Williams, “The Day on Which a Man Dies,” brought us South Africans into a more global vision, as did the many classical music concerts. Even here, in its portrayal of sexual politics, the Williams revival highlighted the omnipresence of gender conflict in our society.

With dozens of performances, talks and exhibitions, the Grahamstown festival is too vast to summarize here. I was left with the overall impression this year of how the festival reflected our current South African reality: deeply multicultural, frequently crossing cultures, a mirror of the hope and despair, and of the innovation and confusion of a society seeking to find its direction.

Just like the city that hosts it.

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J Cosgrove
2 years 1 month ago
I get the feeling from reading your columns that it is becoming unsafe in South Africa. We were there two years ago and had a fantastic time especially around Cape Town. We keep on recommending South Africa as a place to go to our friends because it is really unique and the people are interesting. Is it still safe for tourists are should they be extra careful when they go?

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