Makhanda is the only place to be at this time of the year. It’s the home of the annual National Arts Festival. But then 2020 happened. Without warning, the world stopped. President Cyril Ramaphosa delivered his first of what would later be known as “family meetings”. His first four words would change life as we knew it. “My fellow South Africans”, he began, before explaining that the country was shutting down because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
That same day, a young singer and songwriter was preparing to change his life forever with the release of his best — and biggest — album. The young artist in question? Bongeziwe Mabandla. His 2020 release, iMini, has been a gift and a curse for the young virtuoso.
“[Releasing an album during the pandemic] was such a different experience. My album literally came out the same day that lockdown started,” he said. “We did the whole virtual thing but it just wasn’t the same [but] social media helped a lot.”
Mabandla, who will perform at the 2022 National Arts Festival this weekend, was not the only artist who had to pivot because of the pandemic.
According to a 2022 study by the South African Cultural Observatory, Impact Analysis: Live Music and its Venues and the South African Economy During Covid-19, South African artists who made their living through live performances and exhibitions, received the short end of the stick that was dealt to us all.
The 697 respondents of the study reported that they had lost their livelihood, with at least one describing the experience as “devastating”.
But, at the same time, artists found a way to entertain their fans and create a revenue stream for themselves, with 88% of them turning to online music alternatives in a very short space of time.
Now live performances and exhibitions are back. The artists at this year’s National Arts Festival are pushing hard.
Standard Bank, one of the main sponsors of the festival, is aware of this. Desiree Pooe, the head of sponsorships at the bank, says: “Our involvement in the arts is in line with our purpose of driving Africa’s growth. Through the partnership with NAF [National Arts Festival], we have contributed and continue to see the growth of the industry, its participants and beneficiaries.
“We are evolving and adapting to the environment to ensure our approach continues to have maximum impact in the arts.”
At this year’s festival, people can expect an interdisciplinary performance from Gavin Krastin called 12 Labours; a performance by singer Amanda Black; Bloke & His American Bantu, a play about penpals; and a show from Mabandla.
“People can expect the usual turn-up,” jokes Mabandla, “My shows are always fun … I want people to have as much fun as I’m having on stage,” he says.
But, says the artist, it’s not just a show, it’s the beginning of a personal transition and a move to his next album. “My last album was such a different experience. But I’m fortunate to have a team behind me [that could see the bigger picture]. The silver lining in the release of [iMini] was that people could experience it differently.
“I think it had the opposite effect on people than I wanted … they could actually listen to it,”
With the National Arts Festival being one of the many stops on his tour, Mabandla is ready to take on the world again.
“I love a realisation. [The pandemic] did teach me that life must happen in order [for me] to create,” he says.
As a first-timer at the National Arts Festival, Mabandla is clear about one thing: his purpose in the much overlooked creative industry. “My pain, my life and my upbringing are what inspire my music. Creativity without life experience is flat.”.
Bongeziwe Mabandla will be performing and previewing new music from his upcoming album at the Guy Butler Auditorium on Saturday June 25. To book, visit: https://nationalartsfestival.co.za/show/bongeziwe/#