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Opinion: Grahamstown, we have a problem

Published on 15 July 2016

(The following piece, written by Festival CEO Tony Lankester, was featured in Grocotts Mail on Friday 16 July 2016)

Dear Grahamstown

Firstly – thank you to everyone who played a role in making this past National Arts Festival a success. From those who worked in our guesthouses, taverns and restaurants, who opened their homes to friends, those who cleaned and prepared the streets, to those who sat in our darkened theatres and allowed themselves to be swept away by the imagination of our artists. The Festival is a gargantuan citywide team effort, and, this time out, the team was a winning one.

This year’s attendance was slightly down on last year’s record-setting Festival. No cause for panic or despair, just a settling and probably a reflection of our tough economic times more than anything else. Over the last ten years we’ve grown over 60%, outstripping inflation and setting record after record. A sober year in the middle of a decade-long party is not a bad thing!

We know how money churns through the Province at this time. At last count R340m gets spent in the Eastern Cape because of the Festival, R90m of that in Grahamstown. It’s not the biggest industry in town – education or agriculture probably hold that title – but it’s the one that puts Grahamstown firmly in the public consciousness, generating over R100m worth of media coverage from the 500 journalists who get accreditation to cover the event.  Hours and hours of television and radio coverage, hundreds of thousands of words, ‘likes’ and ‘shares’.

But, Grahamstown. We have a problem.

While, this year, the people and money flowed through the City, the water didn’t. As the local reticulation system ground to a halt we watched helplessly as municipal officials and contractors moved water around the City as needed, constantly re-prioritising according to the vagaries of dwindling and erratic supply and fluctuating demand. They worked hard, they worked efficiently. Pumps and motors needed drying and fixing, spare parts needed to be trucked around the country, and there had to be endless explaining to irate visitors and locals why their taps were dry for days on end. Grahamstown was juggling water.  Whether it came about through carelessness, neglect, accident or sabotage (or a combination of those), it was not a pretty sight. As deft and hard-working as the Makana water team was, though, they were fighting a losing battle.

And so we wake up this week to some tough choices about the road ahead for those in charge of this City.

if we do nothing, we will have a Festival that has decayed and shriveled to a shadow of its present self. If it exists at all.

One set of choices will see, in ten years time, a flourishing Festival that has grown steadily and confidently, and continues to be an amazing, globally recognised artistic platform and driver of the local economy. Alternatively, if we do nothing, we will have a Festival that has decayed and shriveled to a shadow of its present self. If it exists at all.

Yes, it has come to that.

If we don’t want 2016 to mark the moment that a steady decline was rendered irreversible through apathy and paralysis, we need some leadership, planning and action from those who run Grahamstown; and some investment from those who care about its future.

For, ironically, the future of the Festival in Grahamstown doesn’t hinge on artistic vision, funding for the arts or marketing to drive visitor numbers. Those are challenges we’re comfortable confronting. The real challenge is decidedly unsexy but deeply vital: municipal infrastructure planning.  The ability to sit down and ask “what must Grahamstown do today to make sure we have the Festival we want in ten years time?” – and that is a question that has not been asked by either a pre- or a post-democracy Municipality. Which means that now we have to ask some new questions: How have we allowed our infrastructure (our roads, water, electricity, sewage and refuse) to deteriorate so much, so quickly and so dramatically?  Can we continue to guarantee a reasonable supply of electricity and water to our citizens and guests? Can we take their waste away? Do we have enough capacity in emergency services to deal with any major incident during a Festival of this scale? (The answers to the last three questions, by the way, are all “probably not”).

The Festival has been taken for granted for too long. Complacency has settled in, with many people assuming that the event, and the global spotlight it turns on this City, will always be here and that the annual party can just be enjoyed for what it is. The superheroes on the ground will apply the Band-Aid. Locals will grin and bear it. The Festival will put on a brave, positive face.

But we can’t keep urging people to come here if we can’t guarantee their health, safety and comfort. We can’t responsibly hold an event that attracts tens of thousands of people when the City’s infrastructure is so neglected that more than half its citizens live without water as a matter of course. And when the supply of water during Festival is so erratic that our guests fall asleep not knowing if they will be able to shower, boil a kettle or brush their teeth when they wake up. And, even if a plan is hurriedly made for Festival visitors, it is done at the expense of the families living here who just want the basics so that they can go about productive, normal lives.

We can’t, as we did one night during the Festival, have 2000 people in the Monument without a single running tap. We can’t switch the water off in the township so it can flow in the affluent west. There should be a plan that ensures a reliable supply to everyone who lives here, all the time; and that makes the supply scalable to accommodate influxes of visitors.

We can’t pat ourselves on the back every year for staging the biggest arts event in Africa, one of the biggest and most iconic of the world’s Festivals, when we can’t even offer our guests a flushing toilet. It’s embarrassing and humiliating. And, Grahamstown, we’re better than that.

unless the decline in infrastructure is halted and turned around, it is entirely feasible that the Festival will not be in Grahamstown in ten years time.

This is not about patching over the problems or simply making everything ok for a few days a year. We need a proper plan. The City and the Province needs to take the infrastructure crisis seriously, or they will lose the Festival. It might not happen next year, or the year after that. But, unless the decline in infrastructure is halted and turned around, it is entirely feasible that the Festival will not be in Grahamstown in ten years time. And it won’t be the fault of the leadership in 2026. It will be part of the legacy of the leadership of 2016.

And in case it’s not clear from what I’ve written above, let me re-emphasise this:  it is not about the men and women who work so hard on the ground during the Festival, patching over crumbling infrastructure; battling Municipal cash flow issues that make it hard for them to get essential parts and supplies; getting out of bed in the middle of the night to fix a burst pipe or flooded pump station. They are the silent stars of the Festival, the ones who, against the odds, just barely manage to keep it together. But as superhuman as they are, they too are fighting a battle that cannot be won. It’s a battle against what seems, to those of us outside City Hall, to be neglect, apathy, and lack of political will.

The Festival is not universally loved in Grahamstown, we know that. And we also know that we’re not perfect and our small team works hard, year round, to try and bridge the many gulfs that exist on our doorstep. But everyone – even Festival detractors – will concede that its benefits are significant. I have always maintained passionately that the Festival cannot possibly exist anywhere else in South Africa. And I really, really want to keep saying that. More than that, though, I want to believe it.

The Festival is 100% committed to Grahamstown. It holds our roots, it is our home. We do not want to be anywhere else. And we are fully prepared to be part of the solution. But just as there’s a reasonable expectation that we’ll organise a great Festival, we have an expectation that those whose job it is to provide infrastructure are doing their jobs. We need those whose job it is to plan, to plan. And then to invite us to be part of it.


— Tony Lankester, CEO National Arts Festival

12 July 2016

(Photo (c) Shaun Kitchen 2015, from the Festival’s ‘Foto Fence’ Competition) [/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]