The biggest and most vibrant celebration of South Africa's rich and multi-faceted culture is the annual National Arts festival held in Grahamstown. This quaint Eastern Cape city is transformed into the country's creative crucible and for 11 days in July it's the only place to be.
From theatre to dance, opera to cabaret, fine art to craft art, classical music to jazz, poetry readings to lectures, every art form imaginable is represented in one of the most diverse festivals in the world. And there's something for every taste, with techno raves, Mediaeval banquets, craft fairs, cyber cafe's, carnivals, buskers and walking tours.
The National Arts Festival, which is organised by the Grahamstown Foundation, started in 1974 with 60-odd items. These days there are about 600 events on the Main and Fringe programmes and close to 1800 performances on offer. Initially, supporters came in their hundreds; now it is estimated that they total around 100 000.
Many factors explain the festival's popularity. Not the least of these is its location, for Grahamstown is an unusual place.
Founded in 1812 by Colonel John Graham as a military headquarters for British troops during a series of bitter clashes with Xhosa fighters, it grew as a commercial centre after the arrival of several thousand settlers in the 1820's. However, the city declined in importance when the Frontier Wars came to an end, and diamonds and gold were discovered in the interior.
Largely untouched by modern developments, Grahamstown is an English 19th century cathedral town in a setting that is unmistakably African. It's a bequiling contrast. Surrounded by the distinctive vegetation of the Eastern Cape lies an architectural cornucopia with treasures ranging from settler cottages, Victorian villas and Georgian mansions to Gothic-style churches, barracks, museums and monuments.
There is another more disturbing contrast. In other larger South African cities, townships are situated far from smart suburbs and tourist attractions. This is not the case in Grahamstown where, on the hillsides, there are poorer dwellings and shacks as far as the eye can see, a constant reminder of how harsh racial policies divided societies in this country. With buildings from the colonial era on the one hand, and apartheid's legacy of seperate and unequal urban development on the other, the past is ever present.
Certainly the profusion of spires, gables and towers makes Grahamstown an explorer's delight. Random walks can lead to the discovery of unexpected gems - narrow lanes, stone walls, arched entrances and stained glass windows. It is not surprising that visitors to the National Arts Festival fall under the spell of a village which yields an amazing assortment of venues. Pubs, church and school halls, restaurants, museums, lecture rooms and clubs - every available space is pressed into service.
And for a week and a half, the festival takes over Grahamstown, enveloping it in posters and filling every nook and cranny with artists, directors, performers, writers, crafters, vendors and tourists. Famous faces can be spotted in all the streets, restaurants and foyers, actors are watching other actors, talent scouts are doing the rounds. Caught up in the keep-going-till-you-drop spirit, festival-goers are participants rather than passive viewer. It all adds up to an electric atmosphere 24 hours a day.
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