Since its inception in 1974, the National Arts Festival has always served to hold a mirror up to society. The way in which it has done that may have shifted over the years, but its purpose in doing that has remained constant, writes Executive Producer Ashraf Johaardien

In his reflection on the 2017 National Arts Festival, cultural activist and playwright Mike van Graan uses the various locations of the Spur in Grahamstown as a metaphor for his changing experience of the Festival over the years. Like Mike, I have vivid memories of the Spur, not only in Grahamstown, but throughout my life. As a six-year-old growing up in Cape Town, for me the Spur was the home of Chico the Clown, an inverted ice-cream cone served in a metal bowl with two Jelly Tots for eyes, a Smartie for a nose and a stripe of red syrup to complete the happy face smiling up at me. Over the years, the menu changed and eventually Spur stopped serving Chico the Clown … but still I went back…

When I eventually realised that the Spur had nothing to do with America or cowboys or the cuisine of that country (other than perhaps the cultural appropriation of the indigenous peoples of the United States for branding purposes), I stopped going … for a number of years … until my first trip to the National Arts Festival as a student. And even now I still go back to the Spur in Grahamstown from time to time.

At the end of last year, a video that captured a racially charged incident between customers at a Spur outlet in Johannesburg went viral and the social media fallout hit Spur quite hard with its share price reportedly falling by 7% as a result – probably because they handled the incident poorly. Despite that (and irrespective of how often Mike or I go there), the Spur Group has opened 35 new outlets since then. So I reckon the Spur is indeed a great metaphor for change – largely because the franchise has been around since 1964 and, despite its shortcomings, it has had the fortitude and resilience to morph and adapt to a world – and an audience – that is changing at record speed.

In an article entitled ‘Revolutionary Trends at the National Arts Festival 2017’, academic and playwright Anton Krueger astutely observes that: “Everybody’s Festival is different. Each individual charts their own course in navigating this vast, unwieldy, multidisciplinary festival of festivals that happens every year in the Eastern Cape.”

Having attended the Festival since 1993, I would venture to add that not only is everybody’s Festival different, but that every edition of the Festival is different. Some years, the changes are almost imperceptible; while in other years, the changes are more radical. Perhaps Alec Mullins is not used as a dance venue one year, perhaps there is a new producer behind the scenes, or perhaps there are six Standard Bank Young Artists instead of the usual five, or perhaps the location of the Village Green Market has changed (for the third time). The scale and impact of the change will usually find its mirror in the reactions of artists and audiences.

The late Professor Alan Crump, who served as Chairperson of the Festival’s Artistic Committee from 1990 to 1999, is quoted as having said, “Art inevitably expresses the nature of society: its pressures, hopes, insecurities and aspirations, particularly in a country like ours, which has undergone so many radical changes over so short a time.” 

Since its inception in 1974, the National Arts Festival has always served to hold a mirror up to society. The way in which it has done that may have shifted over the years, but its purpose in doing that has remained constant: to be at the frontlines of change, to be a place for alternative voices and a vehicle for communal and individual creative expression, celebration, mourning and healing. 

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