This year marked 40 years of the Grahamstown-based National Arts Festival, which is not only the biggest festival in SA, but also in Africa. Invariably, the festival comes under fire for its failure to visibly bridge social divides and create what may be seen as more equitable distribution of the R349m it generates a year for the Eastern Cape and the R90m it adds to Grahamstown’s economy.
An emerging genre of this criticism comes from writers who probably fancy themselves as left-leaning, who unfailingly argue that the festival is an elitist gathering of the rich. The broad arc of this narrative sets up a stark schema in which all the winners are a generic "rich" and all the losers an undifferentiated, passive "poor".
One of this year’s offerings comes from Kimon de Greef, who argued on the This is Africa lifestyle blog that "the cultural and economic benefits associated with all this activity are extremely unevenly distributed, excluding the majority of the town’s population and reducing them to the role of distant spectators. By concentrating wealth and privilege in a small corner of town, the festival (worsens) tension between haves and have-nots, leading to increased conflict over access and public space."
While there is a grain of truth in this, I have become wary of the broad thrust of this kind of analysis which, while appearing concerned with the plight of the marginalised, actually provides little insight into how the structure and funding of the arts festival impedes the broadest and most diverse participation.
At a superficial level, the article betrays the writer’s own social insularity, when De Greef remarks that accommodation for the festival is booked out ahead of time. This is not true; there is plenty of accommodation in the township during this period. There is cheap, informal township accommodation that is commonly used by visiting black community arts groups as well as township bed and breakfasts under the "Kwam eMakana" brand. However, little has gone into marketing and popularising these options among festival-goers.
For De Greef, the face of the black poor experience is the "begging" children dressed up as mimes, hustling for a few rand on the streets. But he does not explore the experiences of black rural and township-based artists, who raise funds from state agencies so they can bring their productions and products to the festival because of its sheer size and status. What writers such as De Greef and others offer is not critical engagement on the problem of inequality in the arts sector, but a simplistic pity narrative that simplifies the arts to a consumption practice of the wealthy while erasing the participation of a broad spectrum of black practitioners.
The reality is that the festival, in spite of its contradictions, is still considered a worthwhile pilgrimage by artists across the spectrum. According to Rhodes University-based economists Jen Snowball and Tim Bale, a significant proportion of show producers view the festival as a space to test their productions and meet other artists, even if shows do not make a profit. Exposure and exchange between myriad artists is possible because the festival does not restrict participation on its fringe.
But seasoned playwright and arts administrator Mike van Graan has questioned whether the festival’s open-fringe policy is inadvertently punishing emerging and inexperienced groups by fragmenting the audience with a vast number of productions. In an online exchange, he got to the point, saying the fringe could benefit from a limited number of curated productions, which, if provided with adequate mentoring and funding, could stand a greater chance of success and also level the playing field where there are "vast differences in expertise, training, access to resources, networks and experience of the festival".
Van Graan’s intervention, though contested, enriches the debate and has implications for the creation of equitable models of arts and audience development in SA. This is a far more meaningful contribution to the arts-transformation debate than the generic images of pitiful poverty and unchallengeable wealth invoked by De Greef.
Article by Nomalanga Mkhize
• Mkhize lectures in history at Rhodes University.