By JENNA KRETZMANN
It is safe to say that the rebirthed 2022 National Arts Festival (NAF) was nothing short of magical.
Despite stage 6 load-shedding, uncertainty, ever-changing Covid-19 regulations, show cancellations and the clarion call for a printed programme (and Cue) – festinos flocked in their hundreds. Miraculously, the 11 days of showcasing South Africa’s best and brightest artists remains one of the biggest gatherings for the arts in Southern Africa.
But what exactly were the outcomes and takeaways of this year’s festival? Has NAF heard your cheers and cries? How is the organisation re-building in such a way that does not assume that what was once done pre-covid is still optimal?
The NAF’S Chief Executive Officer, Monica Newton, first appeared in the arena in 2020, making this her first in-person event. The charming and ebullient arts administrator assured us that fest was back and set to stay.
This is what you can expect and brace yourself for in the coming years of ‘The Fest’.
2022 NAF was a festival of its time
Fest is a full-time job. The NAF employs at least 30 full-time employees, bumping this number well beyond 450 staff over the 11 days of the fest. Collectively, they work around the clock to ensure the smooth sailing of every festival. The meticulosity of this planning is both a blessing and a curse. It meant that the 2022 NAF was planned to function within steadfast Covid-19 protocols and designed to operate at 50% capacity. However, upon the eve of its opening, Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla declared mask mandates a thing of the past and allowed venues to operate at full capacity. Although this legislation may have encouraged more participation at the fest, Newton said the festival had already been envisioned to leave a smaller footprint and act as a ‘trial run’ for future years.
Additionally, larger venues were booked, and more tickets had to be sold last minute. Airlines were ill-prepared for the increase in festinos, with five days of no availabilities of flights to East London or Gqeberha. Throw in the still-prevalent fear of Covid-19 of many festinos, and NAF still had a rough tide to swim through. “2022’s festival will stand in history as our first live event living with the pandemic,” Newton said.
No sooner were the masks removed than the NAF was cruelly unplugged by Stage 6 load shedding. The hospitality industry was forced to dust off its generators and cater to thousands of visitors with load shedding three times a day – and often for three hours at a time. Most venues were without backup power and left in an unprecedented predicament – swap venues, shuffle around show times or, heartbreakingly, cancel.
A few anecdotal examples of artists circumventing this hurdle include Sophie Joans’ Île, which saw audience members light the stage with torches on their smartphones, and Hamlet, that on more than one occasion, performed the climactic final minutes with emergency stage lights. As we know, there is no way to predict future load shedding schedules, thus leaving NAF in a difficult situation. But, it can be guaranteed that whatever electrical state we find ourselves in 2023, artists will be there.
We know – the online programme sucked
It is fair to say that one of the loudest cries from this year’s festival-goers was the loss of a printed programme. “I want to highlight the pages”, “I need to hold a book”, and “I can’t find anything on this website” are just a few of the grumbles one could hear while quietly trying to enjoy a G&T at the Village Green Beer Garden.
“Digital programmes allow for more flexibility. You also don’t have the enormous environmental impact and the cost as, unfortunately, the high-gloss paper cannot be recycled,” were Newton’s well-rehearsed answers to these calls.
Although it appears that one must bid farewell to the once 300+ page ‘novel’ of the fest, Newton promised that the NAF’s ticketing website would improve in the years to come. Additionally, more malleable ways of engaging audiences with the programme are being explored; a printed festival ‘planner’ is on the table, but please, do not shoot the messenger.
Bridging a divided city
Let us address the elephant in the room. The infamous divide between sellers at the Village Green, Church Square and under the arch was stark, and the absence of the Fingo Festival has left a hole between the town and its outlying areas.
Newton emphasised the difficulty of planning a festival under firm Covid restrictions, thus altering how the markets were set up. Access control, sanitising stations, and mask protocols were all factored in when ruling out Church Square as a logistical and regulatory challenge – NAF had never planned for Church Square to run. However, the market persevered and stalls were sparsely set up.
Newton said the Village Green is a trickier market for local entrepreneurs to manage, as most have full-time jobs. Thus, Church Square or alternate spaces are an essential facet in the informal trading sector of the festival. “We are very interested to see if there is still an appetite for the city, Makana Tourism and ourselves [NAF] to imagine a Makhanda-specific showcase wherever that may be,” Newton added.
The Fingo Festival, established in 2011 as a community-led arts festival held at Fingo Village Square, saw a collaboration between local artists and NAF, Makana Municipality, and other prominent local stakeholders to promote social cohesion, dialogue, and social transformation. However, its fall occurred pre-Covid, and it has struggled to remerge under the current climate. “The divide within our city is being bridged over time and with difficulty,” Newton said. However, she remains hopeful that the teamwork experienced to put together this year’s fest will permeate into long-term relations.
Jazz is not going anywhere
One of the glitziest highlights of the National Arts Festival is its exclusive jazz festival. However, when Standard Bank pulled the plug on three decades of sponsoring the event, regular festinos waited in eager anticipation for jazz to re-appear on the programme. With luck and phenomenal planning, we could still experience live jazz. Although held in smaller spaces, with smaller audiences and fewer shows, the music was well-received.
I was lucky enough to be in the audience of former Standard Bank Young Artist for jazz, Benjamin Jephta. In his work, Born coloured, not born free, Jephta explored the complex coloured identity and kept the audience entranced. The more discreet setting in the DSG Hall did not alter the magic of the music. Newton can assure audiences that jazz will continue to have a life of its own at festivals to come. “If you know of any funders, please just let me know,” she joked.
Despite it all, the festival happened. Whether you were amongst the organisers, performers, marketers, artists, musicians, festival goers or virtual attendees (yes, V-fringe happened, and it is here to stay), you can pat yourself on the back. The irony of life is that nothing good comes quite as easily as we hope, but it forces us to celebrate the small victories.
Artists were finally able to showcase their work at what has been pronounced on social media as “the Olympics for the South African arts industry”. Those in hospitality were again fully booked, money was brought back into Makhanda, and the magic that creeps its way into our streets for 11 days is undoubtedly returning.
We cross our fingers and toes that it is only upward and onward from here for the NAF and the broader field of arts in South Africa. “Whatever your plans are, you need plan A, B, C, D because chances are, you’ll be working with plan D,” Newton said. With these comedically wise words and an inferno in her belly for the festival, we are in safe hands.