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Shaping together: 50 Years of the National Arts Festival

Published on 17 May 2024

Over the last 50 years, exceptional, ground-breaking, thought-provoking productions, exhibitions and performances have been presented in the halls and on the stages of the  National Arts Festival. The names of performers, producers, directors, artists and crew that can be found in our past programmes, in Fringe productions, within the Standard Bank Young Artist Award and Standard Bank Ovation Award winners lists can be read as a history of the arts in South Africa; each carries a special story and meaning for the Festival, and our nation.

In the half-century since we were founded, our audiences, partners, sponsors, performers, and Festival teams have played an essential role in creating the Festival that we are today. And along the way, we celebrated huge wins for the nation – such as welcoming our transition to democracy 30 years ago. The arts, and its supporters, provided a vital voice in bringing an end to apartheid, holding a mirror up to society and steering much-needed transformation. The Festival, like so many theatres and art spaces, became a platform through which we could come together to address challenges, voice concerns and create an impact in our communities, societies, and on a government level. 


We don’t just use our 50th as a chance to reminisce. With the convergence of 30 years of democracy in the same year, we’ve taken this opportunity to cast our gaze forward to the next ten years. And in so doing, have learnt from the incredibly well-researched Indlulamithi Scenarios, which have “looked above the trees” and tabled three potential scenarios for South Africa in 2035: Hadeda Homes, Vulture Culture and Weaver Work. The first two paint an undesirable future picture. In the Weaver Work scenario, however, the theory posits that artists can play a role in holding a mirror to society, nurturing protest culture and fuelling a movement that steers us towards a positive future for the nation. Serving as a metaphor for this scenario is the sociable weaver, that works in a collaborative of hundreds of birds to sculpt one giant “hotel” nest that they all inhabit. 

Like the telephone poles these sociable weavers attach their nests to, ​​The National Arts Festival provides a platform to reflect, co-construct and shape the future of South Africa. We all have a role to play, no matter how small.

What does South Africa in 2035 look like for you? History has shown the power that we hold as an arts community to create change, to work together to co-create the South Africa we want to live in. Let’s use our voices and our platforms.