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Expect the unexpected at National Arts Festival 2017

Published on 3 April 2017

South Africa’s artists, theatre makers and musicians are responding to the challenges of living in a country in flux with genre-busting work that is provocative, innovative, engaging and entertaining. Some of the best of these productions will be showcased at this year’s National Arts Festival, to be held in Grahamstown from 29 June to 9 July this year.

Featuring new works from theatrical firebrands alongside Festival favourites such as the Gala Concert, presented this year by the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, visitors to this year’s Festival can expect a thrilling mix of new and familiar in a programme that both reflects and challenges South African society.

“Creative disruption has served as the backbone for building this year’s core programme – and the response has been extraordinary,” says National Arts Festival Executive Producer Ashraf Johaardien, who has been working with the 20-member Artistic Committee to put together this year’s programme.

The National Arts Festival is made up of a number of programmes and events, including the curated Main; the open-access Fringe; and the Arena, which gives award-winning works a platform at the continent’s biggest cultural event.

“A number of the works selected for the Main programme refuse to sit quietly in any one genre – and that will be the first clue that something is in flux,” says Johaardien. “Multi-sensory, immersive works that cut across disciplines signal a desire by the artists to engage audiences in new and unconventional ways. Other works will disrupt dominant historical narratives by offering new lenses for looking at the past and reclaiming stories previously relegated to the margins.”

This year’s FEATURED ARTIST is composer, musician and cultural activist Neo Muyanga, who will premiere solid(t)ary, a piece composed specifically for the Festival, exploring the notion of song within protest and revolt. The Neo Muyanga Trio will present a new collaborative music production with Andre Swartz, Peter Ndlala and guest Msaki. He will also host a talk on protest and creativity as part of the Think!Fest programme, a fascinating series of lectures, debates, and conversations that provide insight and opinion relevant to programmed events and wider topical issues.

Audiences are guaranteed nothing but brilliance from the winners of this year’s STANDARD BANK YOUNG ARTIST AWARDS: cellist Abel Selaocoe (Music); bassist and composer Benjamin Jephta (Jazz); choreographer and dancer Thandazile Radebe (Dance); playwright and director Monageng Motshabi (Theatre); sculptor Beth Diane Armstrong (Visual Art); and multimedia artist Dineo Bopape (Performance Art).

As well as showcasing works that serve and include new and diverse communities, the Festival continues to offer opportunities for high-quality performances from the country’s more established artists – look out for Sylvaine Strike, Jay Pather, Vincent Mantsoe, Vanessa Cooke, Rehane Abrahams, Dada Masilo, PJ Sabbagha and Craig Morris.

British stand-up comedian Stephen K Amos will be doing two shows in Grahamstown and there are two other UK acts on the Arena programme too: athletic comic duo The Pretend Men in the Fringe smash hit, POLICE COPS; and Louise Reay, fresh from the Brighton Fringe with IT’S ONLY BIRDS, “a comedy in Chinese for people who don’t speak any Chinese at all”.

“Despite a tough arts funding environment, the programme we’re able to offer still represents the cutting-edge of performance excellence in South Africa. Our artists, institutions and producers are doing amazing things in every corner of the country, and the programme that Ashraf and the Committee have shaped, will once again be a celebration of the best of this,” says Tony Lankester, the CEO of the National Arts Festival.

Hazel Chimhandamba, Head of Group Sponsorships for Standard Bank who have been long-standing sponsors of the festival says, “With the calibre of artists on the programme for the National Arts Festival this year, we can expect to be stirred by works that reflect creatively on our past, stimulate dialogue about our present, and inspire conversation about our collective dreams that drive innovation and change.”

In a Festival-first this year, a number of popular shows will open for pre-booking in the course of April – details will be communicated on the National Arts Festival social media channels. Bookings – including pre-bookings – for all shows can be done via the secure National Arts Festival website at

  • The full programme will be available online when bookings open in early May at
  • Printed copies of the Festival programme will be available at selected Standard Bank and Exclusive Books branches.
  • The programme and other useful information about the Festival will also be available on a user-friendly app, available for IOS and Android.

Highlights of the 2017 National Arts Festival


Versatile and exciting young theatre makers and artists will break new ground and excavate forgotten histories this year in Grahamstown, premiering a number of new works.

Standard Bank Young Artist Monageng Motshabi’s brand-new play ANKOBIA is set in Kgomodikae, a land where history is forbidden. He uses sound, silence and text to explore the pain of not being allowed to remember – and what happens when children are reminded of our past.

The past exposed is also examined in Nadia Davids’ WHAT REMAINS. Directed by Jay Pather, dance, text and movement combine to tell the story of the unexpected discovery of a slave burial ground and a city haunted by the memory of slavery.

SABAMNYE noMendi, a series of evocative live performances conceptualised and curated by Mandla Mbothwe, goes beyond the theatre walls and into public spaces to investigate and interpret SEK Mqhayi’s poem about the sinking of SS Mendi just off the Isle of Wight in 1917, a tragedy in which more than 600 black South African troops drowned.

There are works with a lighter, funnier touch too with Ben Voss and John van de Ruit co-writing MAMBA REPUBLIC, a rapid-paced satirical sketch-comedy that takes a look at all that is wrong in South Africa. Sylvaine Strike directs the hilarious and poignant TARTUFFE, by the Fortune Cookie Theatre Company, the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS) and the Alliance Française in South Africa, with the support of Total South Africa, BNP Paribas/RCS and Mazars South Africa. Molière’s satire at its very best, it features Craig Morris, Neil McCarthy, Vanessa Cooke and Khutjo Green.


Previous winners of Standard Bank Ovation Awards, which reward productions on the Festival Fringe that show a high standard of creative excellence, are invited to participate in the ARENA programme. Presented by Business and Arts South Africa, this award-winners’ playground includes productions spanning theatre (the irrepressible Roberto Pombo and Joni Barnard in KIDCASINO; Jade Bowers’ BLACK; and Hungry Minds Productions’ REPARATIONS); music (young violinist PENDO MASOTE and Msaki and the Golden Circle’s PLATINUMB HEART); as well as performance art, dance and physical theatre (Phakama Dance Productions’ …ON THE LINE; Alan Parker’s GHOSTDANCE FOR ONE; and AfriArtiK’s DOWN TO EARTH).


The Dance programme is a curious, furious and poetic mix between the past and the present, with many of the works dealing with history and memory. Standard Bank Young Artist Thandazile Radebe leads the way with SABELA, a contemporary African dance piece., while Vincent Mantsoe’s new solo work KonKoriti references an ancient song about pride, arrogance, physical power and selfishness. Former SBYA Award winner Dada Masilo will present her feminist revision of the classical ballet GISELLE, with music especially written by composer Phillip Miller that layers African percussion and voice with the Western classical harp, cello and violin.

A collaboration between Cape Town’s Unmute Dance Company, Johannesburg’s Dance Forum, and Harare’s Tumbuka Dance Company brings BREAKING BORDERS to the Festival stage. Reaching out to each other, this border-breaking piece aims to highlight and negate the tragedy of xenophobia through connection and looking forward.


Standard Bank Young Artist Abel Selaocoe returns to South Africa from the UK to astound and delight audiences with his diverse virtuosity, with a performance that includes works ranging from Debussy’s poetic and vivid Cello Sonata in D minor 13 to James Macmillan’s spiritual reflective music as well as foot-stomping klezmer and African style inspired pieces.

Selaocoe will perform with the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, who make a welcome return to Grahamstown for the annual GALA CONCERT, under the baton of Richard Cock. Their SYMPHONY CONCERT will be conducted by Bernhard Gueller, with Selaocoe and pianist Luis Magalhaës as soloists.

Pianist Charl du Plessis, with Werner Spies on bass and Hugo Radyn on drums, will present famous themes from the Baroque observed through a jazz lens in BAROQUESWING, while NEOLEKTRA with Naomi Tagg will explore new genres for the violin, such as film and gaming music.

The best of contemporary music across all genres also gets a look-in on the programme, led by a unique collaboration between Karen Zoid and the Parlotones’ Kahn Morbee. The Soil, who left Grahamstown in 2011 with a Standard Bank Ovation Award as an up-and-coming act, return in 2017 as one of the country’s hottest acts. Also on the line-up are R&B star Jimmy Nevis, Desmond and the Tutus supported by Opposite the Other, and a partnership between Robin Auld and Wendy Oldfield.


The work of this year’s selected Performance and Visual artists exquisitely combine the historic and the contemporary. In EXCERPTS FROM THE PAST, for example, Sethembile Msezane taps into the red-hot conversation about colonial conquest of land in Africa in a performance narrated by sound clips from the colonial and apartheid eras and our current context.

Francois Knoetze’s VIRTUAL FRONTIERS uses virtual reality panoramas and immersive sound pieces to tell stories of the past, present and imagined future of Grahamstown. In FOOTPRINTS, curated by Thembinkosi Goniwe, Andrew Tshabangu both contributes towards and subverts Johannesburg’s iconoography.

Spearheading the Performance Art programme is 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for the genre, Dineo Seshee Bopape. The 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art, Beth Diane Armstrong, explores scale, materiality, process and change in her award-commissioned solo exhibition, in perpetuum [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][SUBS: all lower case].

One of South Africa’s most respected artists, Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi makes a welcome return to Grahamstown, after winning the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 1989. In THEY ARE GREETING, a series of paintings, prints and sculptures, Sebidi continues the dialogue between tradition and the contemporary, the material and the spiritual, Africa and the West.

Two exhibitions pay tribute to South Africa’s musical heritage in SEPTEMBER JIVE, co-ordinated and supported by the Alliance Française: SA Musical Graphics is a fascinating selection of album sleeves that offer a reflection on the country’s social history through the lens of the music industry; and My Favourite Sounds, which combines 47 portraits of musical personalities shot by Dwayne Kapula with online interviews.


This year’s Film Festival highlights film’s role as a disruptor of mainstream narrative. Social critique has always been currency for film and documentary makers, and the line-up includes movies about conflict and war (John Pilger’s The Coming War On China, Wolfgang Staudte’s The Murderers Among Us); resistance (Michael Verhoeven’s The White Rose); and politics, freedom and dissension (Akong – A Remarkable Life; The Hidden Sky by Argentinian director Pablo Cesar).

Tribute will be paid to Freddy Ogetrop, a film librarian at the Cape Provincial Film Library, with a screening of some of the treasures he collected over 40 years at the library, including the very rare film by Marcel Ophuls, A Sense of Loss.

Powerful new South African cinema includes Kalushi: The Story of Solomon Mhlangu, Meg Rickard’s Tess, Daryne Joshua’s Noem My Skollie, and SifisoKhanyile’s Uprize!, which explores the world that shaped the students of 1976.


The Standard Bank Jazz Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with a programme that’s stronger than ever, entrenching its place at the centre of South Africa’s jazz calendar. It includes the 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz Benjamin Jephta, who, at 24, is already one of South Africa’s premier double bass and electric bass players, the programme brings world-class musicians from all over the globe to Grahamstown. Jazz enthusiasts can look forward to seeing ESTAFEST from the Netherlands, South African icons Judith Sephuma and Kyle Shepherd, as well as Marcus Wyatt’s new project BOMBSHELTER BEAST, and many others.


The National Arts Festival is not just for grown-ups – there is plenty to entertain and excite young ones too. The Jungle Theatre Company brings the fantastical WHEN LION HAD WINGS to Grahamstown this year. Based on an ancient Khoi Khoi myth about overcoming fear to take back personal power, the production uses daring stilt characterisations, animal masks, original music and a combination of English, Afrikaans, isiXhosa and Nama language to explore this traditional folktale.

The South African production of THE GRUFFALO will return from a national tour to delight young theatre-goers. With an all-Grahamstown cast, and showcasing costumes and props made in the town, the run will signal a homecoming for the National Arts Festival-produced show.

UJ’s student theatre offering, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, is also sure to lure the young and young-at-heart, while daily story telling, workshops, Think!Fest talks on child and family issues, highlighting the 100th anniversary of Child Welfare SA Grahamstown, plus a plethora of Fringe shows will keep the Family Fare venues buzzing.


The Fallist movement and other protests last year put student activism firmly on to the news agenda and into the centre of conversation in South Africa. Each year, universities and colleges are invited to participate in the National Arts Festival and the 2017 line-up is as wide-ranging and complex as the issues faced by young South Africans – there’s revolt and contestation (University of Pretoria’s BLOOD WEDDING, Wits Theatre/WSOA and Theatre and Performance Division’s MMU), dance (Oakfields College’s 4), a focus on black women (Gender Unit of the Western Cape’s THE CITIZEN, Sol Plaatjie University Drama Group’s LEROTHODI LA SEBUKWABUKWANE), moral dilemma and identity (University of the Free State’s SOVERIGN, AFDA’s ZENITH and AFDA Cape’s THE COUCH); as well as sex and sexuality (Market Theatre Laboratory’s POP iCHERRI and Rhodes University’s CULT CLIT). Tshwane University of Technology’s MOLORA uses a highly physical performance vocabulary to express the textual nuances in Yael Farber’s adaptation of the Greek classical tragedy, The Oresteia.


Mindful of its home in the Eastern Cape, the National Arts Festival will once again celebrate its rich heritage by showcasing and highlighting the work of crafters, jazz musicians, indigenous musicians and dancers, visual artists and writers from the eight districts of the Province.  The discerning festival goer will enjoy an authentic Eastern Cape experience offered by the Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture through its development programmes and its celebration of excellence. The focus this year is on the centenary celebration of the life of struggle stalwart Oliver Reginald Tambo. In preparation for the Eastern Cape Showcase, young artists will play an active role in a number of build-up activities during June (Youth Month).

The Dakawa Music Programme will highlight the revitalization of this treasured project. Emerging talent will be given an opportunity to perform alongside established performers such Dumza Maswana, Lwando Gogwana and Titi Luzipo. A flamboyant platform is available at the Dakawa Art Centre for Eastern Cape artists.


An independent, community-led event that runs concurrently with the Festival (4 – 8 July), this year’s Fingo Festival offers a wide variety of children’s activities, live performances, concerts and conversations. All shows are free and the 2017 programme, which includes the OR Tambo Memorial Lecture and the ever-popular Around Hip Hop Session, will provide visitors with more than enough reasons to attend. Fingo Festival is funded by the Eastern Cape Department of Sports, Recreation Arts and Culture and the National Arts Festival.


For details on the Jazz Festival programme.

The Think!Fest programme, a series of talks and debates, is curated by Prof Anthea Garman from Rhodes University’s Journalism & New Media Studies and UJ Arts and Culture and Drama For Life at the University of the Witwatersrand.


The National Arts Festival is grateful to the Department of Arts and Culture, Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture and the Office of the Premier, and Standard Bank of South Africa. Media partners include MNET and City Press.


The Artistic Committee, comprising experts in various disciplines, selects the content of the Main programme. Work from both within and outside South Africa is considered, with the following criteria in mind: the artistic merits of any submission; the creation of a varied and balanced programme; and the costs involved. [/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]