Art, Culture, Reality
Grahamstown

A Festival of Resistance

by Ben Fogel / Images by Bazil Raubach and Zoe Henry / 13.07.2012

This was the third time I attended the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, now as a fourth year student at Rhodes University. The role that the festival plays for the town has become increasingly apparent as my own interests and work have increasingly shifted out of the bubble of Rhodes into the outlying townships that surround Grahamstown. Unemployment in Grahamstown hovers around 70%, and the majority of the city’s (yes it’s a city, we have a cathedral) population still live in townships, lacking access to basic services. Situated on the hills directly opposite the University, the location of the townships in some respect symbolizes an antagonism that exists in Grahamstown. A city of underground resistance from Makana to the birth of black consciousness, rubbing up uncomfortably alongside Grahamstown the colonial city, the British settler outpost set up to clear the Xhosa off their land. As well as the site of a university which still bears the name of that arch-imperialist megalomaniac Cecil John Rhodes.

The Festival serves as a break from this everyday disjuncture; although it is the one time of the year where the majority of the students are out of town, the various businesses dependent on student clientele do good business as a sea of visitors from South Africa’s artistic community and travellers from all around the world, descend on the town for ’11 Days of AmaZing’ – the decidedly lame slogan of the National Arts Festival.

Traders from all over the country set up small stalls at two key locations in town, the more bourgeois ‘Village Green’ located on the rugby fields next to the Bantu Steven Biko Student Union building. At the Village Green, one can find everything from R15 Chow Mein, hippie capitalists floating tie-die merchandise for R300 a pop, trancekop wares and a small group of hip new designers from across the country like Cape Town’s Intsangu brand. The Village Green is still very much a white space, reserved for the mostly white families who travel to Fest every year and have the cash money to splash on crafts. It’s always amusing to see some Afrikaans family from the Free State stop and stare in bewilderment at a giant Buddha bong at one of the several head shops operating in the locale.

The second location for festival traders is further out, in the square behind the Grahamstown Cathedral, Here business is more informal, prices less fixed, and the products more varied. The stall owners are mostly black, and I suspect the clientele is as well. One can find almost everything, from bootleg DVDs to knock off ‘Beats by Dre’ headphones for R100, the Young Money merchandise which seems to be all the range across the country and an assortment of fake designer clothes.

Many of these stalls are run by locals, and people do good enough business in the 11 days of Festival to support their families for most of the year. Locals manage to find part-time jobs during festival doing everything from security to working at some of the restaurants which are only open over this period. Even the city’s many street kids get in on the spirit as they don white face-paint and pose in fixed postures for tourists. I suspect they also pull in more cash during Festival than they do during term time, as students largely seem to block out the kids’ begging.

Much of the town is converted into show venues for the festival, from the Victorian elite private schools of St. Andrews and DSG to the towering relic of the Settlers Monument, of the architectural style I term ‘Apartheid Chic’ (read big grey concrete brutalism, with small windows and perhaps more than a passing resemblance to a maximum security prison). There are shows everywhere, from a Peter Watkins film festival to obnoxious wanna-be Dane Cook comedians like David Newton trading in frat humour, to the talk of the artistic community, a dance production called Moffie which I missed, and a new Athol Fugard play titled The Blue Iris. Such productions are avidly discussed by the cast of journalists, artists, actors and general members of the South African cultural ‘intelligentsia’ at late night pubs such as the Long Table, where one can encounter such figures as Niren Tolsi or Arno Castens, or local academics and performers coming back from finishing their shows. Such an atmosphere represents what’s best about festival, a diverse array of South Africa’s most talented artists and appreciators coming to together for a few days.

But one really does need to ask the question, what does the festival really do for the wider Grahamstown community and is it really representative of South Africa or of a small section of the culturally active upper middle classes? To an extent festival benefits many locals as they have an oppertunity to make a little money, in a town with such digustingly high unemployment. But if one speaks to many locals, you would find most consider festival as an elite space, and by that they mean that it’s largely white. The prices are too high for most to afford, the venues too far away and I don’t know if any of the productions or the organizers make the effort to bring anything to such locales as Joza or Fingo Village.

Two alternative festivals were organized, one being the Rhini Festival of Resistance put together by the Cape Town based radical hip hop collective SOS (Sounds of the South) and the local UPM (Unemployed People’s Movement). The other took a less confrontational line, in the form of the inception of a ‘Fingo Village Festival. In which cultural activists brought together some of Grahamstown’s local talent in a festival meant to be a form of empowerment for working-class Grahamstown. Sadly though, the Rhini Festival of Resistance petered out and failed to fully contest the percieved ‘elitism’ of the official festival. Although with better organization, Rhini could lead to an important statement about the need to ensure that the festival does not continue to fall into the trap of reproducing Grahamstown’s bubble of privilage.

It’s truly bizarre that in a town where thousands of people still don’t have access to running water and sanitation, let alone electricity, where the municipal government is plagued by misspending and allegations of corruption (a few years ago 19 million Rand was simply “unaccounted for”), that state resources are continually pledged by the national government to fund such a festival. And yet, it’s an important festival for a country which seems to value the arts less every year. But if it does not seek to deal with the underlying strucutral reality of Grahamstown, it will continue to reinforce the inequality.

Instead of being an 11 day jaunt to the Eastern Cape, a critique of the existing modes of elite cultural reproduction permeating South Africa’s artistic community needs to be brought to the floor. Where as in the past, theatre, art and music formed a crucial diemension of the liberation movement, expressing new and radical forms of resistance, which managed to institute both a critique of the apartheid state as well as offering alternative forms of political praxis, most often post-apartheid culture gets trapped in either mimicry of Western trends or the sickening faux nationalism of the ‘Rainbow Nation’ or bourgeois narcissism. The disjuncture between theatre and politics is something which needs re-examination if we are to break out of this national morass.

Ok, rant over, plenty of the festival contained a focus on some of the political issues facing our country. Particularly ‘Thinkfest’ which featured a ranged of speakers focusing on the crucial role of the media in the struggles of the poor, with such lumaniries as Steven Friedman, Niren Tolsi, Salim Valley and activists from Abahali baseMjondolo, which appears to be the only effective social movement right now. Pieces such as Moffie and poets like Lesego Rampolokeng brought to bare the same sorts of critiques, I have been trying to make with this piece.

The more experimental Fringe Festival showcases some of the finest young talent in this country and often does not shy away from the political, cultural activists/artitsts such as Iain “Ewok” Robinson continue to make politically charged pieices, so perhaps I have been over-stating my earlier case. My criticism of festival is more premised on the experience of festival rather than the actual content, perhaps I experience it, rather than it existing necessarily as a elite bubble.

Anyway, that was my festival of 2012, bar hopping, a few good productions, fake ‘beats’ by Dre headphones, an invasion of Cape Town hipsters (most of whom seemed about 17), an unfufilled hope in a new working-class festival, frenetic 2am debates at the pub and generally a good time with the artistic elite. The only really negative things I would take away from my ’11 days of Amazing’, starting with that clunker of a slogan, is my unceasing hatred for the Settlers’ Monument and the rage I felt whenever I passed yet another topless poster for David-Fucking-Newton’s show, where Newton seems to be going for the D’Angelo circa Voodoo look, without being able to back it up by being funny.

*All images © Bazil Raubach and Zoe Henry (apart from the David Newton poster, obvs).

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RESPONSES (37)
  1. Cecil John says:

    this reads kind of like a term paper. a well written term paper.

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  2. Bob says:

    Dave Newton is cunt. That is all.

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  3. Lauren says:

    Very interesting article Ben. great work.

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  4. Comrade Barnes says:

    Grahamstown is a powerful indicator of how theatre in SA has lost its way since the fall of Apartheid. The stage, and the festival, used to be a gathering place for civil disobedience and rebellion. The shitty accommodation, winter cold and dodgy venues were a right of passage that sorted the posers from the performers.
    There was a higher purpose, a common cause, that made the beg-borrow-steal productions worth it for the performers and the audience.

    The Festival needs to find its edge again because its future survival relies on connecting with a younger, more engaged and aggressive audience: people with something to say. Hipsters don’t have anything to rebel against – apart form perhaps the exorbitant price of Tortoise Shell Wayfarers. Such an audience already surrounds the festival. They are the geographical fringe. In the shacks and smarty-boxes on the edge of town. They have something to rebel against. The trick is to find a way to get them on stage. Like the anti-conscription generation of the 80s, there is a whole generation of disconnected and ignored South Africans that are perfectly represented in the townships. Rather than just bring shows to Grahamstown, what happens if Grahamstown starts to be a place where shows are created. Where the realities of our past, that we have become rather good at ignoring, are explored through theatre and performance on the ground in a frontier town. Place this within a digitally connected and ‘live’ world and you begin to have the makings of something globally unique.

    If great theatre and performance are about exploring, criticizing and creating culture, then we need to find a way for our cultures to collide and create something new out of the conflict: the hipsters and the have-nots, the seasoned performers and the amateurs….and not just on the village green or in a back alley buying weed.

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  5. Benjamin says:

    whatevs Cecil John, you can do better. I’m looking for quality trolls ok!

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  6. FongkongTiger says:

    Um … editing?

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  7. Cecil John says:

    Ben, that weren’t no trollin’ nigga?

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  8. Benjamin says:

    I’m paranoid that this board might be invaded by david newton fans ok.
    They sadly removed most of the libel against him I had in the piece.

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  9. narcissitic elitist bourgeois faux nationalist says:

    Rage. All the *rage*. Not range. Also spell check wouldn’t hurt (unfufilled??)

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  10. Silent Bob says:

    What a load of parochial crap. I’m in Grahamstown now for a conference and the city is deader than a hick town in the middle of nowhere, whereas a week ago it was jampacked with people spending cash and having a good time. The Festival is not about what it can or can’t do, or should or shouldn’t do, for the people of Grahamstown…It’s one of the world’s biggest arts festivals (second biggest I think?) and is there for artists and audiences. If the locals can’t get their shit together to make some money out of it, or get a job out of it, then maybe they don’t deserve it and South Africa should move its NATIONAL arts festival somewhere it is appreciated. Stop f***ing moaning and waiting for others to make your life better – if something as big as the festival is happening on your doorstep, make the most of it. Moer.

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  11. Anonymous says:

    Unemployed Peoples Movement Festival of Resistance!

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  12. Non-silent bob says:

    Though you have engaged with the subject adequately, a lack of theoretical background to support your critiques and a plethora of cliches mar the whole. Also, I question whether theater in the apartheid era was so richly involving. I remember it as too often having to be harangued by bad actors about one’s complicity in oppression.
    Your paper is replete with minor errors. “Bear” not “bare the same sorts of critiques”

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  13. Benjamin says:

    Do I really have to go dig up my copy of Capital or Discipline and Punish or whatever for Mahala? Honestly if I was trying to write theory, I would choose a different vehicle.

    I’m not suggesting that all theater was so ‘richly involving’, anyone who remembers the era, would surely remember the plethora of out of touch or just plain removed from any sort of political reality productions, not to mention the many productions that were funded by the apartheid state. Rather what I’m hinting at, is a rich tradition of struggle theater which needs to be tapped into again.

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  14. Jon Quirk says:

    I have been shocked coming to Grahamstown the past few years at the visible evidence of the population explosion that will tear our country apart.

    No country, no matter how rich and successful, can cope with the scale of the population explosion Grahamstown is clearly evidence to.

    Science, technology and computer-driven advancements have meant that jobs are now being lost; A recent study shows that even in advanced economies there will be nearly 100 million fewer jobs by 2020, never mind creating jobs for the around 500 million that will be looking globally to join the ranks of the employed in the same period.

    Yet in Africa, including South Africa, population growth is rampant and is a time-bomb in the making.

    Population growth is unsustainable and is going to tear apart any possible social cohesion. Imagine South Africa in a decade’s time with a further 20 million, unemployed, desperate, hopeful-yet-without-hope people.

    This is the real issue facing us all.

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  15. Benjamin says:

    and the token Malthusian makes his token comment.

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  16. Anonymous says:

    How ’bout you go fuck yourself buddy?? :)

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  17. Chris says:

    How about instead of sitting in your computer room eating ice-cream and doughnuts, stop hating on people you’ve never actually met or seen their shows. You think you’re so tough just because you’re behind a computer screen. I would love to see you try something like this in public. Artists and comics have the guts to put themselves out there for everyone to judge while you sit behind your Samsung Computer doing nothing with your life but writing a blog nobody reads and hating other people just because you didn’t have the guts to make something of yourself. The only reason people read this article was because they thought it was about the National Arts Festival but instead they got a fat dried up high school dropout complaining why everyone is better than him. So either get up off of your ass and do something which makes you worthy of judging others or shut the fuck up! No one likes a whiner. Have a great-fucking day dude.

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  18. Struan Douglas says:

    Thank you for your honesty and accuracy in this review. Indeed the dark overlord Rhodes must be exposed for the extraordinary ‘vampire software’ of blood lust, self annihilation and mental suffering, however the balance must be restored. The balance is the saints of light, the christed energy of humanity and one-ness that I witness as prevailing in the lands where the community people live to this day and that is the land of JOZA.

    The slogan ‘amazing’ may appear lame if u do not know its origin, however if you know its origin you will realise how the light of pure love has broken into the consciousness of ‘sarcasm and slavery’ and rendered it unto complete submission to absolute transparency and truth.

    Amazing was born in 2009 when the community youth of Joza township decided to share their learning, their love and their exuberance with the street children that walk to Grahamstown from the West to earn a few pennies over festival.

    Amazing is the story of humanity. It was those who had very very little who decided to give to those who had nothing that lead to an unstoppable wave of sharing.

    The intention of this slogan had been set.

    To say amazing is to say i give unto you that which you require, to say amazing is to say I love you as I love myself.

    Oh how the mighty have fallen, and how we are reaping that which we have sowed.

    Thank you to the people of Joza community Sakhuluntu for housing me and hosting me during the festival 2012. It was upon the extraordinary love you held in your heart through the darkest of days that unity was finally built. Thank you Yabonga !

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  19. Benjamin says:

    Thanks chris, I didn’t know I dropped out of high school… Now after having a couple degrees behind my name, I know that I won a Samsung computer and am a fat high school dropout. Thanks for your wisdom, really… and you appear to have read my article…
    best

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  20. tarqyn says:

    LOL! i love it! so many haters ranting about theater! good one Fogel! keep that SAMSUNG working you highschool drop out hahaha

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  21. tarqyn says:

    this feed back makes me think of news 24 comments lol

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  22. Benjamin says:

    motherfucker I don’t fucks wit that Korean shit, I have a dell! Doughnuts suck as well.

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  23. Peter says:

    I wrote a piece about the david newton hate…
    as a standup comic myself I can understand that some people might not like ones comedic sensibility…but damn…does it have to get personal?
    is having a six-pack and telling jokes morally reprehensible?
    if so..damn..I’m cancelling my gym membership

    http://iamcomic.co.za/the-roasts-of-david-newton/

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  24. Sandylisa says:

    @Benjamin Your ‘education’ would be greatly enhanced by reading a decent piece of objective reporting on the ‘David Newton hate brigade’ at http://iamcomic.co.za/the-roasts-of-david-newton/ Have you actually attended any of his (sold out) shows? One has to wonder what deep-seated self-hatred triggers your rage at his posters… Perhaps a course in Marketing 101 would help you to understand the reality of the international entertainment industry.

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  25. Benjamin says:

    David Newton’s not D’angelo!

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  26. Sandylisa says:

    “motherfucker I don’t fucks wit that Korean shit,…” If this is the level and extent of your ability to respond to comments on a public ‘professional’ website then I am ashamed to be an alumnus of the Rhodes Journ department. I hope you learn a whole lot more before (or rather, if) you actually graduate from RU.

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  27. Benjamin says:

    As a non-journalism student and Rhodes graduate, I clearly have not learnt the correct method of responding to trolls. If somebody has something serious to say, I have a serious response. Clearly you have nothing to say in response to my article other than lay off the topless comedian, ‘respect his hustle’… I gave him like 3 lines in my article…

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  28. Sandylisa says:

    From a ‘decent journalism’ point of view I do have a lot to say about the rest of your article – particularly your presentation of superficial, stereotypical, personal opinions about Grahamstown, the Festival, the liberation movement etc as ‘facts’ – but it seems you are not open to constructive criticism or intellectual engagement from anyone who dares to hold a different opinion so I won’t waste my time or yours.

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  29. Amandla. says:

    “One has to wonder what deep-seated self-hatred triggers your rage at his posters… Perhaps a course in Marketing 101 would help you to understand the reality of the international entertainment industry”. Do you call this ‘intellectual engagement’?

    I’m going to go back to reading News24 comments for enlightenment.

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  31. Nomalanga says:

    My goodness Ben Fogel. I only came across this article now.
    The other festival, Fingo Festival, took a “less confrontational line”. Are you kidding me? Where on earth do you fucking live?
    Do you sit behind a computer and just suck stuff out of your thumb?
    Does it make you feel more radical to assess other people’s initiatives on the basis of thin air?

    Do you have any idea how this festival came about? Or do you have any idea what it took to get it off the ground?

    Is this your radical posture? Are you kidding me?? Did you ask yourself why the Festival of resistance “petered” out?

    Or is your idea that everything that happens in the township, everything that township residents achieve for themselves must first be played out in a spectacle of protest and flurry of radical rhetoric so that you can run and write something on your blog?

    I’m sorry, it’s 6 months later, I never saw this article but you really can’t be serious.
    Reminds me of the derision the Festival CEO Tony Lankaster left on this very site about Fingo Festival. But we resolved all of that.

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  32. Frank Speach says:

    A very disappointing article.

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  33. Nomalanga says:

    Disappointing doesnt actually describe the problem with the article.

    The problem with it is it sets up a false narrative about both the Festival of Resistance and the Fingo Festival by comparing an event that only happened in a press statement with one that happened in reality.

    Fogel writes about Rhini Festival as though it was actually had any chance of happening when all they put effort into was the press release they circulated on the internet. Then he has the gall to say Fingo Festival is “less confrontational”, even though it actually exists and arose even when certain high ranking NAF showed us their backs.

    What irritates me is this journalism by Press Release. This journalism by internet. This journalism that treats the internet as though it is the equivalent of real life. This journalism that is completely disconnected from what happens on the ground.

    Yet the words of these internet writers live on long to tell your story, a story they know very little about. Eventually they become fact, eventually the way they characterise you and they way they pull you into their articles to make arguments, becomes who you “are” in the narratives about township life.

    What did actually happen to the Festival of Resistance? From where I stood, the organisers arrived in Fingo with a lot of arrogance, a huge sense of entitlement and tried to tell us to leave our space so they could run their “Resistance Festival”. The irony of their disrespectful behaviour towards a local township event was completely lost on them.

    Those amongst them who had a bit more respect actually then asked to integrate into the Fingo Festival programme which the organisers gladly obliged. Unfortunately, the guys did not show up for the time set aside for them during the day when people might have actually heard their message.

    What I see in this article is a complete romanticisation of his colleagues on the basis of a press statement they circulated on the internet, not on the basis of what they actually did to try and bring an alternative message to the people in the township. The Festival of Resistance didn’t peter out, it happened on a press statement. (Unless Fogel counts the handful of people that met in the township after dark a festival).

    Had this article not been written, I wouldnt have voiced my opinion about their attitude when they arrived on this forum. It’s not very pleasant to have to do this because I understand how hard it is to make events happen and I wouldnt expect them to have had an easy time going about it.

    But this isnt about the Resistance Festival but about a journalist who is creating a false narrative based on the hype and hyperbole of a press releases circulated within his clique on the internet and not what actually artists and community activists are doing on the ground.

    My intention with my response to him was to write about “what actually happened” since I was there and was affected.

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