New on Festival Bytes: Storytelling in South Africa's festival city

11 July 2013

[By Nadin and Kathrin Deventer] The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown is 39 years old. It showcases South African artists and arts, and international artists coming together for 11 days in Grahamstown, a small city in Eastern Cape in South Africa with a population of 124,758: 44 venues, hundreds of performances from theatre, dance, music, jazz, comedy, and film, as well as a big fringe programme, in the middle of winter time (yes, it is freezing when the sun goes down….).

Some things we learned and discovered during our 6-day stay in Grahamstown:

  • Who has ever heard of Rodriguez? The US based artist from Detroit and main figure in the Oscar winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” – an unbelievable story about the African (US Latin American) hero more known than Elvis and Bob Dylan in South Africa in the 70ies/80ies and still today! He only found out 20 years later after his life in Detroit had turned out totally opposite to the one of a rock star. He didn’t make it in the States… Watch the movie! Every revolution has its hymn; Rodriguez delivered several, such as “I wonder” or “Sugar Man” and contributed to South Africa’s fight against Apartheid. The film was shown as part of the film niche in the National Arts Festival.
  • In 2014, South Africa will be celebrating 20 years of democracy. 20 years of struggling for overcoming Apartheid, for a new identity, and for a new set up of society, fighting injustice, inequality and segregation – which still is so present in today’s South African every day and cultural life: the Grahamstown Arts Festival and its hundreds of performances give witness of this turmoiled past of a country that is still in search of its dream, dreamed by Nelson Mandela and others; the days of the Festival in July were also the days when Nelson Mandela’s death was nearing every day.
  • The crimes committed during Apartheid against oppressed people were reflected in many dance and theatre performances that had a highly political and historical background such as Biko’s Quest, Asinamali, The Island, or Exit/Exist. The Biko Foundation keeps this memory alive: injustice still rules the world.
  • Only 2 million white people live in South Africa; by the 30% of unemployment mainly black people are affected (60% in Grahamstown – and we saw this in the streets in the city). All helping hands in the Festival, says CEO Tony Lankester, are paid: sometimes, it is their only income for the whole year.
  • The rainbow nation is looking, sometimes in nostalgia, for keeping its colours, making all colours shine: Mike van Graan, playwright of the 2013 festival edition with four pieces (world première Writer’s Block, Brothers in Blood, Panic, Rainbow Scars), addresses issues concerning cultural and social racism. He is“one of the few practising contemporary South African playwrights able to construct morally complex and dramatically layered scripts dealing with highly controversial socio-political topics…” (Mail and Guardian): “As a human and family drama, Rainbow Scars is both funny and thought provoking. As a metaphor for South African society, the play confronts some of the key contemporary tensions between the “haves” and the “have-nots”, the “born-frees” and those burdened by the past, between a non-racial elite and an overwhelmingly black underclass. As such, this is theatre of catharsis.”
  • Also very impressive: “My name is Rachel Corrie”, a one-woman play composed from journals, letters and emails of Rachel Corrie, an American peace and human rights activist who immigrated to Palestine and died there in the struggle for a more human treatment at the age of 23.
  • Another figure: Of the two billion additional people on our planet by 2050 half will be in Africa (within the Think!Fest, Jason Drew looked at the future of Africa in the 21st Century). The Think!Fest, a very divers, international and high ranking scientific, political, ecological and philosophical programme put together by Anthea Garman, includes talks with artists and directors about their plays and invites a whole bunch of very inspiring speakers from around the globe to deliver ideas, and raise interesting questions and answers.
  • Every day, 40.000 people die because of hunger and diseases; many of them in Africa.
  • In Cairo, during the same days of the festival, people go back to the streets to fight for the continuation of what started two years ago: the Arab revolution and the fight for democracy.
  • In Istanbul, and all over Turkey, people go to the streets to fight for their right.
  • for humanity.
  • against fear! In a very entertaining way, Mary Scary revealed the struggle for the individual freedom and self-fulfilling, and “The Epicene Butcher”, a highly original and funny piece and approach, let shine through some liberal and feminist aspects.

This is the story we were told again and again – in almost all performances. Storytelling! We are not talking about history. We are talking about reality. We are not talking about an idea. We are not talking about an image. We are talking about everyday life happening here and now. It is the life of people somewhere on this planet. Every performance we saw touches in one way or the other on issues deeply reflected in the society of Africa.

Reflecting the past, trying to understand the present, giving a vision for the future.

It is the storytelling… it is authentic, it is real: you cannot change the world, but you can change one person’s life: catch the moment in time!

There is a need for this festival. It is a great meeting point for the African and international artistic community. It is a place for young people to discover the arts: incredible how many young people from all over South Africa attend the festival; how many people went to the performances at 10.00 in the morning; five to six shows every day was something quite usual for the festival audience; every day finishing at the ‘Long Table’ for an after-day-talk. Sure, there is a lot to be done to make this festival a festival for all in the city: sometimes, the strong police and security presence seemed to ‘protect’ us from the ‘real Grahamstown people’ living on the street…

What do we know? What do we do? Where is Europe in all this?

It seemed to us that Europe is so busy with itself. Why theatres refuse highly political pieces saying we are not dealing with this issue anymore… does that show Europe is not moving anymore?

We are responsible in this world of interdependence, of connectivity, of communities that are living together. And this is what we will bring back from Grahamstown. What can we do? What would we do? What do we have to do?

We travelled more than 7000 kilometres and 10 hours from one side of the globe to the other. And no, we didn’t travel around, we didn’t see the impressive countryside, national parks, the Indian ocean or the lions… We spent our six days in freezing Grahamstown, the festival city of South Africa. We experienced a powerful, colourful, inspiring journey through a rich cultural tradition, burning social and political questions and life, adjusting our own limited European perspective and questions we pose on society as just one little part of a much broader perspective. Us and the others for a big deal. We say good bye, Sala kahle – Sala kakuhle, and tot ziens!

(Written by Nadin and Kathrin Deventer for the EFA Blog Festival Bytes)