Stages stand ready for National Arts Festival

She wows with glittering outfits, has a host of friends from various backgrounds, is always perfectly manicured and preened, and makes a killer bobotie. And she’s running for president.

Evita Bezuidenhout, Trevor Manuel’s pal from the old days of the UDF and supported by the likes of Kadar Asmal, can be found campaigning her political-poppie cause at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, from June 28 to July 2.

The festival itself, which starts on Thursday and ends on July 7, is a site where current trends and future directions in the arts can be observed and plays a vital role towards sustaining the growth of South African arts.

Almost equi-distant from Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban, Grahamstown becomes a worthwhile holiday destination for two weeks every year. As the second-oldest city in South Africa, the town has been associated with carnivals and festivals for more than 160 years.

In 1974, the 1820 Settlers National Monument was officially opened and an inaugural festival was held in keeping with the tradition of the British immigrants, who celebrated landmark anniversaries on a grand scale. With the exception of 1975, a festival has been organised every year since then. Today, almost all art forms are represented in the festival programme, along with craft and book fairs, workshops and demonstrations.

Over 31 years, much has changed in South Africa but the programme continues to reflect post-apartheid tensions and shows that even though South Africa is deemed democratic on paper, issues of equality and justice continue to permeate our society, and thus our creative art.

The content of the main programme is selected by a committee of experts in the various arts disciplines, taking into account what is available both locally and internationally. There are nine theatre productions making their debut in Grahamstown over the fortnight, including Paul Grootboom’s Interracial. This play centres on Mike, a white man who thought he was liberal until his wife started having an affair with black Melvin. Legions of ugly old prejudices start rattling their chains in both camps.

Other rattling can be heard as Evita Bezuidenhout’s bracelets make an appearance on the stage in Pieter-Dirk Uys’s satiric confection Evita for President. In this humorous take on the upcoming African National Congress elections, the well-known tannie points her heel at political folly.

Alongside the main festival is the fringe programme, which is open to all and exempt from the selection process that applies to the main programme.

A highlight on this programme is Gumbo, South Africa’s first full-length deaf and hearing-impaired clowning work. Integrating physical performance, story-telling and deaf and hearing-impaired performers, Gumbo tells the story of a deaf boy who is a source of embarrassment to his father. In another strand of the story, a salesman bets his daughter on the final hand of a heated card game.

There is also a host of stand-up comedians such as Martin Davis, Cokey Falkow, Dave Levinsohn, Martin Evans, Stuart Taylor and Nik Rabinowitz to tickle the funny bone and make light of contemporary South African issues.

Other points of interest include the dozens of exhibitions on view in galleries, museums and other venues throughout Grahamstown, as well as the adult education forum, the Winter School. This stimulating programme offers lectures on culture, politics, sociology, history and other subjects.

The Studio Project, part of the main festival programme, is another aspect of the festival’s commitment to community development. This project was introduced in 1994 to create a platform for young and emerging artists from a disadvantaged background to perform at the festival.

There is also the Student Theatre, a true showcase of emerging writers, actors and directors. Ten or more tertiary institutions take part each year, providing a learning opportunity for students nationwide to come into contact with their contemporaries and be part of this premier arts event.

The Village Green craft fair was introduced in 1989, now attracting almost 1 000 stall holders. This fair offers visitors a chance to buy a vast array of goods and exotic foods, further contributing to the buzz that envelops the entire town during the festival. Every available venue in Grahamstown is commandeered for performances during the festival, from the huge auditorium of the 1820 Settlers’ National Monument to pubs, restaurants and lecture halls.

The National Arts Festival has come to signify the richness of South African culture, as it is open to all people and no censorship or artistic restraint is imposed on any of the works presented.

The festival programme has been criticised in the past for being dominated by English-language productions, but languages such as Afrikaans, isiZulu and isiXhosa are becoming more widely used with a growing trend the emergence of ”collaborative” works that are examples of cultural synthesis.

Bookings for the National Arts Festival can be made at the event, or online at


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