A Festival of Resistance

by Jul 13, 2012All Articles

first published in Mahala

This was the third time I attended the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, now as a fourth year student at Rhodes University. The role that the festival plays for the town has become increasingly apparent as my own interests and work have increasingly shifted out of the bubble of Rhodes into the outlying townships that surround Grahamstown. Unemployment in Grahamstown hovers around 70%, and the majority of the city’s (yes it’s a city, we have a cathedral) population still live in townships, lacking access to basic services. Situated on the hills directly opposite the University, the location of the townships in some respect symbolizes an antagonism that exists in Grahamstown. A city of underground resistance from Makana to the birth of black consciousness, rubbing up uncomfortably alongside Grahamstown the colonial city, the British settler outpost set up to clear the Xhosa off their land. As well as the site of a university which still bares the name of that arch-imperialist megalomaniac Cecil John Rhodes.


The Festival serves as a break from this everyday disjuncture; although it is the one time of the year where the majority of the students are out of town, the various businesses dependent on student clientele do good business as a sea of visitors from South Africa’s artistic community and travellers from all around the world, descend on the town for ’11 Days of AmaZing’ – the decidedly lame slogan of the National Arts Festival.

Traders from all over the country set up small stalls at two key locations in town, the more bourgeois ‘Village Green’ located on the rugby fields next to the Bantu Steven Biko Student Union building. At the Village Green, one can find everything from R15 Chow Mein, hippie capitalists floating tie-die merchandise for R300 a pop, trancekop wares and a small group of hip new designers from across the country like Cape Town’s Intsangu brand. The Village Green is still very much a white space, reserved for the mostly white families who travel to Fest every year and have the cash money to splash on crafts. It’s always amusing to see some Afrikaans family from the Free State stop and stare in bewilderment at a giant Buddha bong at one of the several head shops operating in the locale.

The second location for festival traders is further out, in the square behind the Grahamstown Cathedral, Here business is more informal, prices less fixed, and the products more varied. The stall owners are mostly black, and I suspect the clientele is as well. One can find almost everything, from bootleg DVDs to knock off ‘Beats by Dre’ headphones for R100, the Young Money merchandise which seems to be all the range across the country and an assortment of fake designer clothes.

Many of these stalls are run by locals, and people do good enough business in the 11 days of Festival to support their families for most of the year. Locals manage to find part-time jobs during festival doing everything from security to working at some of the restaurants which are only open over this period. Even the city’s many street kids get in on the spirit as they don white face-paint and pose in fixed postures for tourists. I suspect they also pull in more cash during Festival than they do during term time, as students largely seem to block out the kids’ begging.

Much of the town is converted into show venues for the festival, from the Victorian elite private schools of St. Andrews and DSG to the towering relic of the Settlers Monument, of the architectural style I term ‘Apartheid Chic’ (read big grey concrete brutalism, with small windows and perhaps more than a passing resemblance to a maximum security prison). There are shows everywhere, from a Peter Watkins film festival to obnoxious wanna-be Dane Cook comedians like David Newton trading in frat humour, to the talk of the artistic community, a dance production called Moffiewhich I missed, and a new Athol Fugard play titled The Blue Iris. Such productions are avidly discussed by the cast of journalists, artists, actors and general members of the South African cultural ‘intelligentsia’ at late night pubs such as the Long Table, where one can encounter such figures as Niren Tolsi or Arno Castens, or local academics and performers coming back from finishing their shows. Such an atmosphere represents what’s best about festival, a diverse array of South Africa’s most talented artists and appreciators coming to together for a few days.

But one really does need to ask the question, what does the festival really do for the wider Grahamstown community and is it really representative of South Africa or of a small section of the culturally active upper middle classes? To an extent festival benefits many locals as they have an oppertunity to make a little money, in a town with such digustingly high unemployment. But if one speaks to many locals, you would find most consider festival as an elite space, and by that they mean that it’s largely white. The prices are too high for most to afford, the venues too far away and I don’t know if any of the productions or the organizers make the effort to bring anything to such locales as Joza or Fingo Village.

Two alternative festivals were organized, one being the Rhini Festival of Resistance put together by the Cape Town based radical hip hop collective SOS (Sounds of the South) and the local UPM (Unemployed People’s Movement). The other took a less confrontational line, in the form of the inception of a ‘Fingo Village Festival. In which cultural activists brought together some of Grahamstown’s local talent in a festival meant to be a form of empowerment for working-class Grahamstown. Sadly though, the Rhini Festival of Resistance petered out and failed to fully contest the percieved ‘elitism’ of the official festival. Although with better organization, Rhini could lead to an important statement about the need to ensure that the festival does not continue to fall into the trap of reproducing Grahamstown’s bubble of privilage.

It’s truly bizarre that in a town where thousands of people still don’t have access to running water and sanitation, let alone electricity, where the municipal government is plagued by misspending and allegations of corruption (a few years ago 19 million Rand was simply “unaccounted for”), that state resources are continually pledged by the national government to fund such a festival. And yet, it’s an important festival for a country which seems to value the arts less every year. But if it does not seek to deal with the underlying strucutral reality of Grahamstown, it will continue to reinforce the inequality.

Instead of being an 11 day jaunt to the Eastern Cape, a critique of the existing modes of elite cultural reproduction permeating South Africa’s artistic community needs to be brought to the floor. Where as in the past, theatre, art and music formed a crucial dimension of the liberation movement, expressing new and radical forms of resistance, which managed to institute both a critique of the apartheid state as well as offering alternative forms of political praxis, most often post-apartheid culture gets trapped in either mimicry of Western trends or the sickening faux nationalism of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ or bourgeois narcissism. The disjuncture between theatre and politics is something which needs re-examination if we are to break out of this national morass.

Ok, rant over, plenty of the festival contained a focus on some of the political issues facing our country. Particularly ‘Thinkfest’ which featured a ranged of speakers focusing on the crucial role of the media in the struggles of the poor, with such lumaniries as Steven Friedman, Niren Tolsi, Salim Valley and activists from Abahali baseMjondolo, which appears to be the only effective social movement right now. Pieces such as Moffie and poets like Lesego Rampolokeng brought to bare the same sorts of critiques, I have been trying to make with this piece.

The more experimental Fringe Festival showcases some of the finest young talent in this country and often does not shy away from the political, cultural activists/artists such as Iain “Ewok” Robinson continue to make politically charged pieices, so perhaps I have been over-stating my earlier case. My criticism of festival is more premised on the experience of festival rather than the actual content, perhaps I experience it, rather than it existing necessarily as a elite bubble.

Anyway, that was my festival of 2012, bar hopping, a few good productions, fake ‘beats’ by Dre headphones, an invasion of Cape Town hipsters (most of whom seemed about 17), an unfufilled hope in a new working-class festival, frenetic 2am debates at the pub and generally a good time with the artistic elite. The only really negative things I would take away from my ’11 days of Amazing’, starting with that disaster of slogan, is my unceasing hatred for the Settlers’ Monument and the rage I felt whenever I passed yet another topless poster for David-Fucking-Newton’s show, where Newton seems to be going for the D’Angelo circa Voodoo look, without being able to back it up by being funny.

*All images © Bazil Raubach and Zoe Henry (apart from the David Newton poster, obvs).

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