The famous Grahamstown Cathedral . You've never been to here if you never saw it


The annual National Arts Festival kicked off with much fanfare in the sleepy town of Grahamstown, with the Minister of Arts and Culture Dr Pallo Jordan setting the tone for the nine days of artistic extravaganza.
The small town of Grahamstown strikes a visitor as the last bastion of English colonial domination. The final frontier of an imperial war some history books claim died down when the Anglo (English) defeated the Boers (Afrikaners) only to see their conquest reversed in 1961 when South Africa finally left the Commonwealth. Maybe the problem or shortfall was that they (Boers) never annexed this colonial enclave and erected symbols in celebration of their heroes, that is why it still bears many names of English heroes whose legacy does not add up to the pre and post-’94 South African historical realism. And they never tried to rid Grahamstown of the Cecil John Rhodes legacy, a non-academic mining capitalist who colonized South Africa but died in Zimbabwe, thus claiming dual citizenship.
A book titled The Cult of Rhodes, launched at the WordFest and written by Rhodes University Professor Paul Maylam questions just that, arguing that "Rhodes laid the foundation for Apartheid even before Verwoed".
There’s nothing that says to the visitor that this is a ‘national’ arts festival, but maybe an Eastern Cape arts indaba with national funders as the National Arts Council of South Africa (NAC) came aboard in a big way, with NAC's Andrew Nkadimeng even gracing the showing of The Cupid of Tyume, a play written by Monde Zondeki and Vuyisile Msila. The festival is the best advert for Eastern Cape cultural diversity, if ever there’s diversity in one people who are so obsessed with themselves and their rural roots to the point that they tell nothing about the Xhosa middle class family living in Gonubie (East London) instead of Libode or Qunu.
Actually there are hundreds of shows which are shown during this festival, written, directed, choreographed, acted and produced by equally hard-working theatre practitioners and meant to satisfy different art afficiados. There are also tens of book launches, amongst those that are currently available in bookstores being Mtutuzeli Nyoka’s I speak to the Silent and Mzi Mahola’s Dancing in the Rain, both very important books by very important African thinkers and authors.
However, the arts festival couldn’t have been staged at a different venue than Grahamstown. Figures released by the organizers indicate that the 2005 show generated, within the nine days R54 million in revenue as thousands of people flocked to give life to this tiny town which falls under Makana Municipality. Organisers were excited to reveal that of all those millions, R49,7 stayed in Grahamstown.
A town which’s only claim to fame is the university and a famous Cathedral needs all the money it can get to set up infrastructure and create jobs, not millionaires. However the picture that is reflected by the (un)melting pot is that of a group of outsiders coming to stage their shows at the prestigious Eastern Cape event and leaving immediately after that with nothing but memories. Memories of weed, exorbitant food prices and lots of what remains of the peace and love movement.
Word is that the colony is dead as a dog when the festival is not here, which is to say it’s dead for 354 days. It is a retirement retreat for old academics who want to assert their control before they surrender their tired bones to the waiting ground. I’ve heard about it being a one horse town, it actually has two main streets and a borrowed life.
The locals seen at the KFC and other outlets look rushed in their eating manners. There’s nothing that says to you that they are used to these places in the absence of the thousands of visitors from as far as Stellenbosch.
For some time Rhodes was the only university in South Africa that was giving journalism as a degree. One law student named Balindile says she does not know why many Rhodes journalism graduates don’t end up as practicing journalists but media commentators and lecturers in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Or worse, as deejays and radio presenters. The problem is in Rhodes’s geographical location itself, it’s easily accessible to anyone in this part of town.
This is a town where you don’t get your average "heita daar my bra" kind of a darkie, even though since the past two years the festival audience has grown from the previously below 50% black participation to approximately 95%.
I asked a rights activist whether he thinks his politics would have taken a 180 degrees spiral if he studied here in the 1990s and his response was, "we shouldn’t glorify poverty. If any institution would’ve charted a route divorced from poverty, it would’ve deserved being applauded".
He was dodging the simple fact that the institution’s blacks are mostly ‘coconuts’ who aspire to be unblack while giving political credibility to an institution that is celebrating nothing post-’94.
A radio commentator interviewed said that most shows staged here are not successful at the box-office because the corporate sponsors have suddenly distanced themselves from it, "You go to the Klein Karoo National Festival and you see all these cellular companies sponsoring shows, but here they are like, these 95% people don’t even have buying power". He cited Macufe as being more inclusive than the Grahamstown one.

What makes it so great is the buzz of the flea market sellers, it is intoxicating and the music is everywhere. And you get to meet people you never knew existed.
Nighlife paints a picture of a people divided across wealth lines. There are your predominantly white clientele clubs that charge a cover fee and your ordinary clubs that only reserve admission. The beers obviously cost different with only marihuana being a common drug of choice amongst the festivalgoers.
This year mounted police are clamping down on the availability of the herb but its intoxicating smell can still be felt even in the varsity grounds which is where most of the arts afficiados and practitioners are accommodated.
For what it’s worth the national government, in partnership with the all time sponsor being Standard Bank need to come seriously aboard to make Grahamstown or National Arts Festival a truly inclusive festival. Maybe starting with provincial preliminary festivals being the feeders for the national one, instead of it being an issue of affordability. This festival is very expensive to attend and very difficult to access audiences.
VERDICT: All the Macufe, Klein Karoo, Arts Alive, Mapungubwe, MACFest and others need to be the starting point of a festival that should climax here, instead of the other way round. Participants at Grahamstown must come from the best of the regional festivals and not surprise participants.

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