About The National Arts Festival

Festival audience members leave the Drill Hall / Photo: Jan Potgieter

Photo: Jan Potgieter

Note: In 2020, due to considerations about the coronavirus pandemic, the National Arts Festival will be presented online, making the experience available everywhere!

Welcome to Makhanda

Home to more than 40 religious buildings, Makhanda is also affectionately known as the City of Saints. Formerly known as Grahamstown, the city was renamed Makhanda after the Xhosa chief and warrior best known in history for leading the ‘Battle of Grahamstown’ in 1819.

Two hundred years after its establishment as a military outpost, these days it is sometimes mistaken for a sleepy university town on the East Coast of South Africa. For 354 days of the year that is – for the remaining 11 days it completely transforms and explodes across 90 venues to become Africa’s largest multi-arts festival, attracting more than 200 000 visitors, who are here for more than 2 000 performances on a programme of more than 600 events.

Open to all

The National Arts Festival has always been open to all regardless of race, colour, sex or creed. As no censorship or artistic restraint has ever been imposed on works presented in Makhanda, the National Arts Festival served as an important forum for political and protest theatre during the height of the Apartheid era.

How it began

The Festival traces its origins to back to 1974 when the 1820 Settlers National Monument was officially opened. Conceived as a living memorial to the 1820 British settlers, and built on a hillside overlooking Makhanda, the Monument building housed the inaugural festival that same year. It has effectively remained the heart of the Festival since then. Following a fire in 1994, it was rebuilt and officially re-dedicated by Nelson Mandela in May 1996. The transcript from his speech reads as follows:

There are monuments which stand as mute pointers to a fixed and ever-receding past. Devoid of life, they have little meaning outside the history books and the minds of learned people. This National Monument is not of that kind … Pawns in a larger game, the 1820 Settlers came to the part of Africa at the behest of an imperial power seeking to use its own poor and unemployed in a bid to advance conquest and imperial ambitions.

Though their own impulse to freedom rendered them largely unsuitable for that task, they were nevertheless caught up on the wrong side of history, unable or unwilling to acknowledge as equals those into whose homeland they had been implanted. The founders of the monument two decades ago sought to redeem that limitation, without denying it, by dedicating the monument to the universal application of the ideals which the English Settlers cherished for themselves. Today, our country a democracy, and our people masters of their own destiny, we are re-dedicating the monument to the universality of those ideals at a time when we are working together to make them a reality for all. – Former President Nelson Mandela

And now…

In 2002, the Festival was renamed the National Arts Festival, and is now an independent Section 21 company that has an unrivalled reputation as the leading African showcase of local and international creativity.

Spread over 11 days and across 90-odd different venues in Makhanda, the Festival enjoys strong participation from artists from all of South Africa’s nine provinces as well as a number of international artists and audiences visiting South Africa.

According to a study on the impact of the National Arts Festival [PDF] conducted by Rhodes University Economics Department, led by Professors Geoff Antrobus and Jen Snowball, the Festival is a significant driver of the economy of the City of Makhanda and the Eastern Cape Province, contributing an estimated R377.15-million to the province’s economy (2016).

Other key findings of the study include:

  • Main and Fringe shows were rated highly or very highly by more than 80% of visitors
  • More than 80% of visitors said the Festival builds Cultural and Social Capital; 72% Social Cohesion and 69% inter-cultural understanding.
  • 99% of those interviewed said they would recommend the event to others.

Revised: 20 March 2020

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