The National Arts Festival has long been a highlight on South Africa’s cultural calendar. Artists and visitors gather in Makhanda in the Eastern Cape for 11 days of creative connections. Artists working in any discipline are welcomed, allowing for a festival that encourages range, versatility and innovation.

Sundowner Concert in the Monument Photo by Jan Potgieter

Makhanda has been the home of the National Arts Festival since 1974 and no two festivals have ever been the same. What hasn’t changed is our belief that the creative arts offer more than entertainment.

As the biggest annual celebration of the arts on the African continent, its importance as a space for artists and audiences to come together, engage and create unique cultural experiences cannot be underestimated. Through the lens that the arts offer, we are better equipped to understand this world, our place in it, find meaning and drive transformation.

The Festival has deep roots in Makhanda, and for decades the Monument has been a place where people from different walks of life gather to celebrate the arts.

An inaugural festival was held in 1974 when the Monument was officially opened. With the exception of 1975, a Festival has been organised every year since then. While the preparation for each year’s festival starts months before, the Festival itself kicks off at the end of June/beginning of July and for 11 days, the university town of Makhanda is home to people from around the world.

Much has changed since 1974, and the Festival has been shaped and driven by the artistic works and artists who have graced its stages. The event 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 Festival served as an important forum for political and protest theatre during the height of the apartheid era.

Flatfoot Dance Company
Little Red Riding Hood photo by Mark Wessels

Today the Festival continues to provide space for work that interrogates the country and world we live in, and expresses the viewpoints of diverse communities locally and across the globe. 2020 brought with it a new challenge – Covid-19. Felt across the globe the pandemic left no element of human life untouched. Artists and all of those involved in this world, felt the effect of a world in lockdown. It was with this in mind that we pivoted the National Arts Festival into a purely digital event that could be accessed from anywhere in the world.

It was a massive challenge, but it has allowed us to broaden what we do going forward. The 2021 edition of the National Arts Festival includes three elements. Makhanda Live (a smaller but no less impactful live festival), an Online Festival, and Standard Bank Presents, a limited series of shows happening in cities around South Africa.

As always, the programme includes drama, dance, physical theatre, comedy, opera, music, jazz, visual art exhibitions, film, student theatre, street theatre, lectures, a craft fair and workshops.

Transformation and keeping apace with the artists who make the Festival unique and distinctive every year is complex, difficult,  rewarding and exciting. Crucially though, this allows us to stay relevant, to stay sustainable and to still feel like home to the artists we work with, transformation is not negotiable.

Here’s to not becoming history! And to finding creative ways to be heard, to listen, to heal, to understand and to make meaning.

The National Arts Festival & the Grahamstown Foundation

Photo by Roddy Fox

For 50 years the Foundation has aimed to fulfill its mandate of enriching the cultural and educational life of our country – in our home community of Makhanda, as well as through projects which span the whole of South Africa,. touching the lives of tens of thousands of our people each year. We have four main focus areas: Language, the Arts, the Sciences and Conferences.

The Festival was a project of the Grahamstown Foundation for 28 years and, in 2002, became an independent entity with its own board of directors. The Festival company still operates out of the Monument, where it rents office space and performance facilities and manages a range of projects on behalf of the Grahamstown Foundation. These projects include the national science festival, Scifest Africa, the national and regional schools festivals, the English Olympiad and the first African Language Olympiad in isiXhosa which will be launched in 2021.