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Lift off for the first online National Arts Festival

Published on 25 June 2020

The National Arts Festival has made history today with the launch of the first ever digital iteration of South Africa’s major arts festival. The 46th National Arts Festival was unable to go ahead as a live event when COVID-19 shuttered theatres, cultural spaces and festivals globally. Rather than cancel the event,  the organisation decided to take the experience online, a transition that took place in just over 100 days. The result is a richly diverse collection of works that totals more than 270 hours of viewing.

Speaking on the first day of the newly launched online Festival, Chairman of the National Arts Festival Board, Ayanda Mjekula, noted that the occasion was a bittersweet one for the Festival that calls the Eastern Cape its home:

“We must express our thanks to the city of Makhanda who is continuing to support the Festival even though we are not running the festival in the city this year. Note that we are taking Makhanda and the Eastern Cape province to the world through the Virtual Festival. The 2020 edition will be historic in many respects. Firstly: it will be the first time in 46 years that it will not significantly contribute to the GDP of the town and the province. In 2018, the contribution was R377 million and R94 million to the province and the city respectively. This is regrettable but we hope that this will somehow be restored in the future. Secondly: the Festival normally distributed R20 million to artists and supporting industries, we hope that we will attain this level, more or less. This Festival is not only about the technical bit, but it is also about the livelihood of the artists. This must always be maximized at all costs. I wish to thank all those involved in presenting what is the biggest virtual festival undertaking. It is a brave but well considered effort. Enjoy history in the making! We are delighted to be trend setters in the new post Covid-19 World, We will always lead and others will follow.” 

The Eastern Cape MEC for Sport, Recreation, Arts & Culture, Ms Fezeka Nkomonye-Bayeni, noted the devastating impact that the response to pandemic has had on the arts festival and on the Festival’s long history as a key event for the Eastern Cape but said, ‘We believe that the Provincial Government’s first-ever Virtual National Arts Festival will certainly present an opportunity for our creatives, the artists and the crafters to engage on a larger platform. This financial year we have injected R13 million rand to ensure that our local artists, creatives and designers are given an opportunity to showcase their talents. Covid-19 has really brought anxiety and mental challenges to most of our people , so this sector is one way of contributing to the Covid-19 fight in ensuring that we bring about a smile in the comfort of your own home.”

Also present at the opening press conference was the Festival’s long-standing partner, Standard Bank’s Group CMO, Mr Thulani Sibeko: “I would like to congratulate the leadership of the NAF and the team for taking the uncharted path of presenting a virtual Festival, on such a massive scale, I might add. We salute your courage and the attitude of finding new ways to make dreams possible. This is a wonderful representation of the Standard Bank new brand promise and pay off line which says ‘It can be’ . Secondly, I would love to say ‘BRAVO! to the artists, producers, the directors and the technical teams of making the virtual NAF possible. You have risen to an unprecedented challenge. The Standard Bank Jazz Festival is the oldest jazz festival in SA, its an amazing platform for both young and established performers to share their creative experience. The NAF also has special significance for winners of the Standard Bank Young Artist Awards, for them, the NAF is the highlight of their reign. At Standard Bank we are so thrilled that the NAF show will go on in 2020, despite the odds we find ourselves in.”

Monde Twala, Senior Vice President and General Manager of ViacomCBS Networks Africa was also in attendance. ViacomCBS Networks Africa channel brand BET Africa has recently come on board as a major media partner to the Festival. 

The Virtual National Arts Festival opening is a momentous opportunity for Arts and Culture in South Africa and for the continent. ViacomCBS Networks together with BET Africa is excited to bring audiences extensive and inspiring content that will be showcased. We are thrilled to support the Virtual National Arts Festival alongside great partners like the Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture and Standard Bank. Together we look forward to elevate local African creativity and talent to the world.”

Charles Mabaso, Acting Deputy Director General, National Department of Sport, Arts and Culture shared his support for the Festival, ‘”We are proud to be associated with the Festival and most importantly, we will be showcasing the Festival to the rest of the world through this virtual initiative. It gives us an amazing opportunity, particularly for the Standard Bank Young Artists to give and present to the world, to say ‘here we are are 46 years later, we continue to thrive as South Africans, even through the challenges of Covid-19.


Ms Newton explained that the Festival occurs entirely on the site. The event consists of a Daily Programme, with new shows added every day, a vFringe for artists to stage their works and sell individual tickets, the vFringe Galleries; a collection of online art for audiences to browse and the Virtual Green where hundreds of crafters and traders were showcasing and selling their wares. Both the Standard Bank Jazz Festival and the Creativate Digital Art Festival were threaded into the Daily Programme. 

Visitors can choose from a Full VNAF Pass which would include the Daily Programme for the full eleven days (including the Standard Bank Jazz Festival), a daily pass – for which audiences can stream works falling on that specific day on demand – and a Jazz Pass for those who were focused on the jazz alone. Audiences can also buy single tickets for single shows.

The vFringe is not included in any of the Passes, as this is where audiences are able to support artists directly by purchasing tickets for their individual shows. As the Coronavirus has had such a heavy toll on the arts, the National Arts Festival waived the registration fees for artists to participate in the Fringe this year and 90% of the ticket takings will go directly to them. 

All tickets and passes bought will be valid until 16 July 2020. Audiences can play their purchased shows on any device with internet access. There are also a number of free events and workshops to explore at the Festival this year. Although they are free, audiences must book for these events in advance. 


In closing, Chairperson Ayanda Mjekula said, “As much as we are facing many challenges we will continue to host the Festival, We hope to resume hosting the festival in Makhanda in 2021. Obviously, we will think seriously about the model and effect the necessary changes that are needed to cope with the changing environment. We are committed to the format of the Festival being held in Makhanda in the future.”

Mr Mjekula also noted the support of several other key partners without whom the Festival would not have been possible. The Sarah Baartman District Municipality, the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency (ECPTA), Primedia Broadcasting, particularly radio stations CapeTalk and 702 and Business and Arts South Africa. He also noted the contribution of partners in the arts sector who have supported the production and inclusion of work on the Festival including the Cape Design Institute, the Goethe Institutre and IFAS, as well as various theatres and studios across the country that helped to produce work for the Festival such as the Market Theatre, Artscape, Joburg Theatre, Soweto Theatre, the Hilton College Theatre and 44 on Long. Find the Virtual National Arts Festival at 
Special Notice for Standard Bank Card Holders:
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The Virtual National Arts Festival takes place on from 25 June-5 July 2020.