Party for change

Guests to Cape Town from outside Africa have two urgent questions when they arrive: Why are there shacks along the N2 highway and what’s with the unfinished flyover in the central business district (CBD)?

Guests from the rest of Africa always ask: Where are the black people?

Answering these questions goes to the heart of transforming the city.

The famously unfinished flyover is a symbol of the city’s social dislocation. It is almost as if it can only be completed once the city’s deeply entrenched divisions have been overcome, once bridges of healing have been created between communities.

I hosted a Mozambican artist in Cape Town a month and a half ago. We went to Guguletu for one of Papa Joe Mthimka’s Sunday Spends concerts at Ikwezi. As we arrived in Gugs, she exclaimed: ‘So this is where all the black people are! Does Thabo Mbeki know about this?”

He knows. And we know that, almost one year into Cape Town’s democracy, we are only at the beginning of resolving the city’s problems. We have to work fast to make up for the 10 years we lost to the previous city governors.

And surely one of the most powerful ways for the city’s political structures to market its mandate for transformation — and how we as citizens of the city can participate and benefit — is through a festival. Expression is the one commodity we have in abundance.

In 1999 the Cape Town Festival was launched as the One City Many Cultures Festival. Ryland Fisher’s vision of a festival that reconnected a divided city was a dazzling success. And it marked the beginning of a city aspiring to be itself, no longer content with living in the shadow of the famous mountain and pretending to be from somewhere else.

This year, the festival comes back full circle to the theme of the debut event. This time it’s called Ooh!Buntu and with cheeky humour, it is using expression as a means of identifying and exploiting our common humanity amid cultural diversity. Finally, after floundering around for some years, uncertain of its role (a festival, of course, needs a reason to exist), it has returned to its starting point: people are people through people. And so we must bring people together.

To this end, the festival is bigger than before. It lasts three weeks and offers 27 productions. In addition, there’s a comedy festival, a children’s festival and a film festival. For the hot-footed, Night Vision street party once more takes over the city centre. Last year saw 140 000 attend festival events in the CBD, up from 40 000 in 2003. The goal is to improve on those figures for this year.

The CBD, of course, is not the full extent of the city of Cape Town itself. The city extends far and wide, and if the festival’s success lies in its ability to build bridges across the city, then we need to look at what it has put in place to do that.

‘A fundamental element of the festival is building community pride and building competence,” says Yusuf Ganief, director of the festival.

‘Over the year we have trained 36 community organisers to be able to run their own festival events, from fundraising to administration and marketing. Between October and February, we run 10 community festivals across the city, from Atlantis to Sir Lowry’s Pass Village. That’s six more than the previous festival period. And for every community festival, there’s 20 people empowered in terms of skills training.

‘Cape Town is far behind the rest of the country in terms of transformation. And arts and culture is surely the key to unlocking transformation in Cape Town. It’s the one commodity that can interact with every sphere of life and bring them together.”

A festival is much more than just music, dance and theatre. It’s a mini-economy. It creates platforms to expose our artistic nature in a variety of disciplines, creates job opportunities and skills training. It promotes small businesses and stimulates the local economy. It penetrates the heart of the city and its resources. And a festival should, ultimately, unite the city for a short period and reveal the potential for social cohesion.

Last year, the political structures showed themselves woefully disconnected from the city. This year they will hopefully use the opportunity to put on a face of cohesion. With so much going on, from Big Bay to Joe Slovo and the housing stress, the political structures should use the platform to push its mandate forward. What a lovely opportunity to make the goals of the N2 Gateway project clearer to a broader public, to create public forums around issues of housing and who should get them. This is a democracy, we should all be engaged in it. The festival should allow us to do just that. And in doing so, it should create bridges over our troubled mountain.


  • At the Edge: Ronnie Govender’s prose adapation about Cato Manor is performed by Pat Pillai at the Artscape Arena until March 12.
  • Ketima: Gregory Maqoma presents his meditation on the concept of haste in the cycle of life. At the Artscape Main Theatre from March 16 to 19.
  • Angels Everywhere. Oscar Petersen and cast explore life in Manenberg — gangsters, dealers and ordinary folk. At the Artscape Arena from March 16 to 19.
  • Rhythms Down My Spine. Odidi Mfenyaya (below) tells a new kind of African tale while exploring contemporary youth culture. At the Intimate Theatre on Hiddingh Campus from March 16 to 20.
  • Scratch: Shirley Kirchmann’s solo show is a black comedy about ‘love, dreams, passion and revenge”. At the Artscape Arena from March 23 to 26.
  • The Children’s Story. The consulate of the Czech Republic and the Cape Town Holocaust Centre present an exhibition of children’s art from Terezin concentration camp, as well as a documentary film programme. From March 24.
  • Night Vision. Come out for a festival on the city streets on March 11 from 6pm until dawn. Catch the action at Long Street, Bo Kaap, Greenmarket Square and St George’s Mall.
  • For festival details Tel: (021) 465 9042 or visit

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