As you are likely to have heard, our City, Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) is currently experiencing the effects of a severe drought that is the worst we’ve seen in 220 years. The effects have been exacerbated by a largely inadequate and poorly maintained municipal infrastructure and, as a result, a large number of our residents have been battling to get water to attend to their everyday needs. It has been hard going for the past few weeks and, predictably, there has been some media coverage of the crisis.

In June we’re set to host the 45th edition of the National Arts Festival in Makhanda and discussions have invariably turned to the impact the drought will have on us. A few people have said they might not attend the Festival, believing either that they will not have access to water or that they will be an added burden on an already-fragile supply. Some have even told me, or posted on social media, that they know the Festival is either cancelled or moving to another city (PE seems to be the popular choice of these wild speculators). None of that is true but, if you share concerns about the impact, then this letter is for you.

Without going in to the long details of the municipal water reticulation system, the City needs about 20 mega litres a day of water. The drought has affected half our supply dependent on local rainfall and, as a result, we only have access to the 10 mega litres that come from the Orange/Fish River project. This capacity is in the process of being doubled, but will only be completed in 2021.

A couple of weeks ago we were fortunate enough to benefit from the intervention of the Gift of the Givers. Their team has had a huge impact. They have been helping with short-term interventions, such as supplying bottled water to residents. They are also drilling boreholes at strategic points around the City to provide us with an alternative source of water — a better and more sustainable solution.

So what does the water crisis mean for the National Arts Festival?

Our first priorities are to make sure that Festival visitors are safe and comfortable, and that their presence doesn’t result in extra pressure on the limited supply of water. This is taking a lot of work and planning, but we’re confident we’ll achieve both those things:

  • We have a borehole, sunk in partnership with Gift of the Givers, providing the Monument with 100 000 litres of water a day. This will be enough to sustain the Festival’s main hub and the thousands of people who visit it each day.
  • We are establishing additional drinking water stations at all our main venues.
  • We will ferry water around town in tankers to refill existing and new tanks at our venues so that, wherever Festival-goers gather, there will be enough water to drink and basic hygiene can be followed. This water will be sourced in a way that doesn’t impact on or diminish the City’s scarce supply.
  • We are working with local guesthouses and the Rhodes University residences to ensure that there will be enough water for our visitors to drink and to attend to their personal needs.
  • We are working with Standard Bank and Gift of the Givers to increase water capacity in the townships, particularly at schools, so that residents do not experience a shortfall during the Festival and can go about their daily lives comfortably and safely.
  • Between now and June, we expect that a further 20 boreholes will be sunk around town, adding millions of litres of water daily into the system. All this water is being tested and will only be used if it is declared pure and potable against the highest-possible quality standards.

So our overriding message is that the town and the Festival will have water. We’ve got this. And we need to reassure you that you will not be an unwelcome burden on residents. In fact, your presence will make a vital contribution to the local economy. Makhanda needs the Festival — it boosts our GDP by R94-million annually, creating employment for hundreds of people, many of whom have no other work during the year. Our artists need you to support their work and reward the many thousands of hours they’re spending rehearsing and preparing amazing shows. And, let’s face it, right now all of us in South Africa need the Festival — an opportunity to find each other through the arts, to laugh, to sing, to cry, and to be reassured that, actually, our country is still an incredible place to live, work and play. That’s what the Festival and the arts are all about — giving us all the perspective we need to keep going, no matter how difficult things appear.

Since 1974, the Festival has played this vital role. We survived the darkest days of the State of Emergency in the 1980s. We cheered on as our country peacefully emerged as a democratic nation. Our artists have dealt with state capture, confronted the scourge of gender violence, and found ways to tell touching, human stories of our people finding each other and themselves. Our comedians make us laugh, our musicians inspire us to move. Our artists paint and our writers pen beautiful, poignant, insightful words about both the ordinary and the extraordinary. We’re not going to let a drought rob us of all of that beauty.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “…in the mud and scum of things / There always, always something sings.” And sing we will. The show will go on.

We look forward to seeing you between the 27th of June and the 7th July!

Tony Lankester
National Arts Festival CEO

PS. To keep in touch, please refer to the National Arts Festival website at www.nationalartsfestival.co.za and watch out for the launch of the 2019 programme. Some shows are already open for booking, with more being added before the full programme goes on sale, as usual, in early May. Follow #NAF2019 on our social media channels.

PHOTO: Gift of the Givers, in partnership with NAF, successfully sink a borehole outside the Monument, home to South Africa’s National Arts Festival