By LIKHAPHA THAATHAA and ROD AMNER
Visitors attending the National Arts Festival are no longer required to wear masks indoors and venues no longer need to adhere to a 50% maximum capacity rule. The lifting of restrictions applies to all 15 Rhodes University venues, according to an official Rhodes Coronavirus Response Task Team notice on Thursday, 23 June.
This follows the news that South Africa has no more regulations governing the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, as per a repeal notice gazetted by Health Minister Joe Phaahla on Wednesday evening.
NAF board member Dr Siphiwo Mahala and CEO Monica Newton welcomed Phaahla’s announcement. “This is massively welcome as some shows were sold out based on the 50 per cent capacity in buildings,” Newton said. “But, now we can sell them based on the full capacity of the building, and it couldn’t come at a better time. But, please be patient as we readjust the system to full capacity,” she said.
However, it is unclear how repealing the Government’s Covid-19 regulations would affect the Rhodes vaccination mandate. The official notice did not mention any change in the university’s vaccination mandate. At the time of going to press, the University had not yet clarified whether the mandate was still in force.
Earlier this week, Rhodes insisted that NAF ticket holders over the age of 12 attending shows at any of the NAF’s 15 university-owned venues would be required to produce a vaccination certificate, a negative COVID-19 test (less than 72 hours old), or medical proof of COVID-19 positivity in the three months prior, to gain access to the venues.
Commenting on these requirements, NAF’s Newton said, “This was a very tough call for everybody, and we have honoured the decision out of respect for our partnership and relationship with the university. For now, we will adhere to the university’s policies.”
Newton and Mahala said they were “closely communicating with Rhodes” and “constantly stay in touch with the public”.
Meanwhile, the Rhodes notice stated that while masks were longer required indoors, wearing masks and other measures – like sanitising, social distancing, and washing hands – were still encouraged. And while there were no longer any restrictions on numbers at Rhodes venues, social distancing where possible was still encouraged.
“As of today, we have various visitors in town for the National Arts Festival. This temporary increase in population density can make us vulnerable to cluster outbreaks, which Makhanda’s medical facilities cannot adequately cope with.
“If you feel comfortable wearing a mask, please continue to do so. Please be safe and follow non-pharmaceutical measures as much as possible, especially during the National Arts Festival period,” the statement said.
A NAF press release on Monday, 20 June, just three days before the start of the Festival, offered its apologies for the “unforeseen change to our COVID requirements” and promised unvaccinated ticket holders subsidised COVID tests for R50.
Ticket holders were urged to load their vaccination details to https://vaccine.certificate.health.gov.za to get a digital certificate or bring a hard copy.
Several festival-goers expressed surprise and anger at the announcement.
One local commented on Facebook: “Sadly, the public is now getting a taste of what Rhodes has been imposing on those staff and students who cannot or choose not to vaccinate. Staff have been suspended without pay and dismissed, students have not been able to register, and many have consequently lost their funding.
“Rhodes’s uncompromising attitude has been unequalled by any other university in SA. It is unscientific, unethical and outdated. Now they are compromising the artists and the Festival.”
However, Rhodes University senior communications officer Veliswa Mhlope said some social media comments around the announcement were incorrect. “There has been no university policy change or last-minute announcement,” she said.
“Rhodes University’s vaccination mandate was made public in October 2021 and has been repeatedly reaffirmed internally and through external media reports since,” Mhlope said. “External users of University facilities are advised of the vaccination mandate when a booking is made, and this was done in the case of the National Arts Festival.”
Mhlope said Festival organisers appealed to the university on 15 June to discuss the possibility of relaxing the vaccine mandate for seven Rhodes venues.
“The appeal was considered seriously, including raising it with the University executive over the public holiday and consulting the legal team, which had defended a challenge to the vaccine mandate in the high court,” Mhlope said.
The university decided the mandate would need to stand.
“The Festival organisers indicated that they understood the university’s position, and the relationship between the two organisations remains congenial and mutually supportive,” Mhlope said.
The mandate only applies at Rhodes University venues. It will not be enforced at any other NAF venues.
NAF will fully refund tickets for the affected venues for ticket-holders who do not have a vaccine certificate and don’t want to take advantage of the rapid testing.
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In response, NAF said it was not initially clear that Rhodes would enforce a mandate.
“This only emerged recently, and despite the Festival’s best efforts, we could not gain exclusion to that mandate. We sincerely apologise and have tried to explore every avenue with the options available to us,” NAF said on Facebook.
The Festival’s position from the start of its media campaign had been that it would not implement a mandate.
Another commentator on Facebook said: “Even the WHO says protection (of oneself) wanes after six months, so surely Rhodes wants a vaccine certificate not older than six months?”
In response, Rhodes University said it followed Higher Education Health guidelines based on the WHO and NICD guidelines and government regulations.
“For short-term visitors such as patrons attending a show for an hour or two, the mandate provides a range of evidence of their COVID-19 health status, so a vaccination certificate is not mandatory should individuals prefer another form of health evidence. In the case of students and staff permanently working on the campus, who are required to have a vaccination certificate or an exemption through a formal process, the University advocates periodic booster vaccinations according to prevailing government regulations,” Rhodes’s Mhlope said.
The affected Rhodes University venues are:
- Rhodes Theatre
- Rhodes Theatre Foyer
- Rhodes Box
- Great Hall
- The Hangar
- Beethoven Room
- Nuns Chapel
- Studio Gallery 1
- Studio Gallery 2
- Tryall Cottage
- The Raw Spot
- African Media Matrix
- Rhodes Red Foyer
- Social Innovation Hub
- Rhodes Department of Fine Art