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Arts festival kicks off in celebratory mood

The National Arts Festival was officially launched in Grahamstown on Wednesday evening at the Settlers monument. This year is the 30th anniversary of the event and, coinciding with the 10th year of South African democracy, the occasion lent itself to reflection on the place and meaning of arts festivals within a broader social context.

Guest speakers included — most notably — Minister of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan.

“We as a nation are attempting to redefine ourselves to ourselves, to get to know ourselves by getting to know each other … and also to redefine our place in the continent and in the world,” said Jordan.

“The National Arts Festival has played a very important role in this respect. Arts festivals are about discovery, about exploration … I want everyone here to have fun. Let us have a good time. Look at things. See how others see us and perhaps we’ll discover something about ourselves in an environment and in a context in which we’re enjoying ourselves.”

Jordan’s presence was chic and confident and he ended his speech with a brief performance on a drum.

The limelight was, however, stolen by one of South Africa’s most charismatic premiers, Nosimo Balindlela of the Eastern Cape, who was wearing traditional dress with painted white spirals on her cheeks and exuding an insatiable charm. She was greeted with cheers and ululations by the enthusiastic, if noisy, audience filling the main hall.

Balindlela expressed her enthusiasm at the progress the festival has made in becoming more representative of South Africa.

“You know, I can’t believe we have come this long way. The hall is full, but it is a mixed audience,” she said.

Balindlela expressed her joy with the 800 Rooms Project, which she had initiated. The project involves turning 800 homes of poorer residents of Grahamstown into bed-and-breakfast establishments. She also managed to rouse the audience into song to greet Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa, who was in the audience, and told anecdotes about her experiences in Grahamstown over the years.

“I remember when my daughter was eight years old,” she recalled with amusement, “and she visited a friend here in Grahamstown. When she went to her friend’s place she got scared because she saw a dog. So the friend said to her ‘Don’t worry, it won’t bite you. It only bites black people’.”

A recurring theme throughout the speeches was bringing the arts to more South Africans. Mark Gordan, deputy chairperson of the National Arts Council board, one of the sponsors of the festival, stressed the need to extend the festival into areas that it has neglected.

“For the first time, we’ll be taking a different approach to the festival … we will be engaging with those people who cannot come to the festival,” said Gordon, saying that there will be a move to reach out to those who cannot attend the festival by hosting events in the poorer areas of Grahamstown.

The speeches were followed by a performance by the Eastern Cape Cultural Ensemble, who created on stage a nuanced and textured cultural landscape that included the use of indigenous instruments such as the uhadi and mouthbow, as well as a choir that provided a powerful vocal showcase with elements of Afro-jazz.

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Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon
Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon is a lecturer in anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand and a research associate of the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa.

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