50 years on, future remains bright for National Arts Festival

Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse performs at the 2024 National Arts Festival in Makhanda. Picture: Alet Pretorius

Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse performs at the 2024 National Arts Festival in Makhanda. Picture: Alet Pretorius

Published Jul 5, 2024



Ngentsasa yangoLwesine, amapolisa ambonzeleke kumboniso. Sorry, I beg your pardon. Let me restart.

On the morning of Thursday, June 20 – the National Arts Festival’s opening day – police, campus protection services and a private security company barged into Mandla Mbothwe’s Izandi Zemilambo Yabo Kuthi / The Sounds of Their Rivers in Us exhibition space at the Rhodes University Studio Gallery.

All attendees, including the organisers, were ordered out. Why? Candles and impepho (sage) inside a heritage building, unsecured plasma TVs and allegations of missing pot plants outside were also bandied about.

“This incident was the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding. A person who worked at Rhodes (University) was not informed about the production and was alarmed. They called Campus Security without finding out what was happening. The National Arts Festival subsequently explained the situation and showed them the permissions and paperwork. The situation was resolved so the show could resume,” said the National Arts Festival’s CEO, Monica Newton.

And the show did go on. Audiences were almost denied an immersive audio-visual tribute to departed artists.

The unbanned space resembled a candle-lit, impepho-scented yoga studio adorned with reed mats and pillows as a harmonic ensemble soothed the audience.

Speaking of police raids the next performance on my itinerary had to be Sarafina – one of 39 Ovation awardees this year.

On Sarafina!

Apart from the poor acoustics of Makhanda’s City Hall and the frightening scaffold seating, there really wasn’t much to complain about. East London-based Sonwa Sakuba Institute for the Performing Arts students were able to pull off an energetic and powerful interpretation of this classic musical.

The choreography was both dynamic and precise. There were, however, moments where the actors could have gone deeper into their emotional reservoirs to bring more authenticity and depth to their characters. Adding more vernacular could have enriched the essence of this production.

“There was a beautiful balance between theatre veterans and young emerging talent at the festival this year.

There were some very high-quality shows and thought provoking works that cut across various themes. Young producers should prepare for complex dynamics at a destination festival; people management goes beyond the work presented on stage because what happens before and after the show is as important as what happens on stage,” said the festival’s stakeholder manager, Nobesuthu Rayi, who further advised aspiring producers to ensure they watch other people’s shows.

Writing about the National Arts Festival

Festival can be quite a daunting exercise owing to its scale. It spans over 10 days with 300 shows and exhibitions that include 138 Fringe acts.

On the seated business of the festival

An unexpected twist to this year’s festival was finding myself shoeless, huddled inside a traditional Xhosa kraal on the hills of Makhanda with Justice Albie Sachs, artists and traditional healers, ruminating on deep existential questions facing humanity – such as land – under the ArtTalk 50/30 series curated by Rucera Seethal and Niren Tolsi.

Running concurrently with the festival was the Eastern Cape Development Corporation’s Film Expo that saw aspirant film-makers to accomplished thespians interacting over a period of three days while the National Film and Video Foundation, Film and Publication Board and various municipal development agencies provided guidelines on how to work with them, secure funding and adhere to industry regulations.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the existence of Montywood in East London and that Gqeberha is now home to brand-new film studios.

Plans are afoot to make it easier for Eastern Cape film-makers to churn out more on-screen productions. The SABC was also on standby unpacking its budget and commissioning processes.

Also running was the three-day Litfest at the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature. It was packed to capacity and showcased quite a number of vernacular writers, poets and artists.

I could only catch two items from this extensive programme: Izibongo Zoogxa: Poems on Contemporaries (1902–1944) led by Ntombomzi Mazwi and Jeff Pieres (in the absence of Jeff Opland) was one of them.

Considering SEK Mqhayi had a deep-seated aversion to English and how some of the terms used in Xhosa were untranslatable, even by the author’s own admission, I really did not enjoy this session. Direct translation of Mqhayi’s work can easily render him unwitty.

Second was the book launch of Umbhoxo: Making Rugby an Afrikan Game by Philani Nongogo, Buntu Siwisa, Hendrik Snyders and Mzukisi Twala – an inestimable Eastern Cape and Western Cape rugby history book that is guaranteed to feature one or two surnames every family can relate to in these two provinces.

Even the late Dumile Kondile is there. Brace yourself, it’s quite an academic read which makes it all the more better for referencing. I cannot wait for the Xhosa version.

On fringe theatre productions

Towards the festival’s closing I made it a point to go and watch the Battle of Lurhwayizo that takes audiences back to the 1987 bloody Transkei war of Lurhwayizo acted out by a vibrant youth cohort.

Again, these actors are more convincing when in the vernacular mode. The English parts aren’t convincing at all.

On the music front

The National Youth Jazz Vocal Celebration at the DSG Auditorium was quite a pleasant and unexpected experience. Those school and university jazz choirs from around the country sent shivers down my spine as they did various renditions of South African jazz hits. Next time a bigger venue, please.

The future of music is in safe hands.

Still on the music front: Mandisi Dyantyis was quite a hit, and Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse attracted the more old-school jazz attendee. I also managed to see Dumza Maswana’s performance. Watch out for that voice. Cape Town’s rap trio, Driemanskap, were also on standby at the Black Power Station; their sound has not evolved one bit.

On the comedy front

I was quite spoilt for choice and settled for Chester Missing’s Hehe, which features Conrad Koch and more puppets. The retired teacher takes the puppet cake in this show. Another comedian who scored a Bronze Ovation Award was Gqeberha-born, Cape Town-based Jam Jam with his Sorry For The Weight show.

Watch this space. It’s big. Out of all these acts I have to hand it to Rob van Vuuren – just when you thought absurd could not get more absurd, he presents his Namaste Bae: Blessings & Kombucha. He is taking this show to Cape Town and I can assure you it is not for the sensitive.

Be playful when you get into that room or you will be offended, much like the “world’s most useless seagull” chap who stormed out of the Thomas Pringle venue with his girlfriend, following a short stint with the Namaste Bae on his table.

On the return of thespians

The streets of Makhanda were not as busy nor buzzing as the pre-Covid days of this festival. There was a stillness and silence about this run-down small town.

Spotted on the streets, at Rat & Parrot, Jacques Artisan Bread, Pothole and Donkey, Joza Youth Centre and at the Monument were actors such as Lusanda Mbane, Kabomo Vilakazi, Sisanda Henna, Lona Bawuti, Sivan Pillay and Layla Swart, to name a few.

“With the launch of Mzansi Magic in 2010 a number of South African actors migrated to TV and as a result were often not able to juggle their schedules to fit in theatre work. Most of the actors that were at the festival this year were actors from Gqeberha: The Empire, a telenovela filmed in Nelson Mandela Bay that had just concluded filming season 2. Having these actors here in Makhanda is great for the Eastern Cape’s film and television growth, but also means that they are able to attend the festival,” said Rayi.

On the Art front

One of the festival’s highlights is always the art exhibitions curated inside the Monument and the various galleries around town. The main exhibition was titled Mattering: 50 Years of the Festival, curated by Raphaela Linders. It showcases past and present artworks, across various media, from a range of artists that include Nandipha Mntambo, Mamela Nyamza and more and including previous year’s festival posters.

For a 50th celebration I expected much, much more. The big guns from yesteryears should have made an appearance. It would have been great to see William Kentridge manoeuvring Kimberly-hole-sized potholes, Andrew Buckland miming atop one of the many dishevelled donkeys in this town (hint hint SPCA), or how about Jane Alexander’s Butcher Boys seated outside Makhanda’s popular water shop with an empty 5-litre jerrycan or even bumping into Sello Maake Ka Ncube perambulating under the town’s non-existent street lights at night.

It would have been great to see some of these old Young Artist past honorees at the 50th.

“Now that we have this legacy of half a century, we are already planning for the future of the festival. Stepping into the 51st festival we are planning for more growth in all aspects of the festival,” concluded the festival’s board deputy chairperson, Dr Siphiwo Mahala, who hosted the Chairman’s lunch with various industry key players and stakeholders.

The streets were quiet but the actual venues were packed for each show I attended.

The festival attracted comparable numbers of ticket sales and Village Green visitors to those in 2023. Despite the country’s prevailing economic conditions and uncertainty post the May elections, there is actual hope for this festival. So long as they promise to bring out the big guns next year.

Cape Times