The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown was recognised around the world as an expression of the freedom enshrined in the South African constitution, Eastern Cape premier Phumulo Masualle told hundreds of cheering, whistling festinos as he officially opened the 41st festival in the Guy Butler Theatre on Wednesday night.
Guests were greeted at the entrance of the Monument Building by giant clowns jiving on stilts, a brass band belting out cheerful favourites for dancers while marimbas created an African ambience.
Masualle used the joyful platform to highlight 2013 Rhodes University research which found that the festival annually contributes R350-million to the provincial economy, and that Grahamstown earns R90-million from the 12-day arts event.
Commenting on the wild cheers which earlier greeted Chinese visitors who, when introduced, stood up in the auditorium and bowed, opened their arms and even blew the crowd kisses, Masualle said representatives from 29 countries were attending the festival.
He urged artists and patrons to use the festival as a place to “reflect on who we are, where we come from, and how this shapes our destiny”.
He said South Africa would be a “dull land” without pennywhistle kwela, Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata, Brenda Fassie’s Black President, Gerard Sekoto’s breathtaking art and the musical brilliance of Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim.
He noted that Black President was sung in honour of Nelson Mandela, to whom the month of July was dedicated. “We gather to mark the 41st edition of the National Arts Festival. For 11 days we will give full expression to Section 60 when the freedom of artistic creativity will be unleashed.
“We welcome our friends from 29 countries who will be here for us.
“You came from Angola, Benin, Colombia, the DRC, England, France, the Scandinavian countries, USA, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, China.
“This is a concrete realisation of the international solidarity, peace and friendship which is in our constitution, which was inspired by the Freedom Charter.”
He invited festival-goers “to indulge in the beautiful sounds and sights created by our living legends”, adding “please visit the stalls of our Eastern Cape crafters and buy a piece of jewellery for friends or family to take the spirit of Grahamstown home with you”.
Deputy Arts and Culture Minister Rejoice Mabudafhasi said the festival brought audiences from different backgrounds together.
“The National Arts Festival is a catalyst for promoting social cohesion and nation-building,” she said.
During the apartheid and post-apartheid eras artists had consistently reflected the “architecture of their society” and “inspired social change”, she added. “They capture the painful rhythms and aspirations of society.”
Mabudafhasi said South Africans needed to open their “minds, rather than borders” to the African experience. “We have not yet placed Africa at the centre of our thinking.
“I encourage every South African to learn the words and sing the African Union anthem,” she said.
Pemmy Majodina, the MEC for sport, recreation, arts and culture, had the crowd cheering and whistling when she said: “God was our main artist, God created us!”
National Arts Festival chairman Ayanda Mjekula said the festival celebrated the “intersection” of freedom of expression with freedom of artistic expression, and that artists “challenge conventional wisdom and speak in a brave, bold, clear voice to keep people from despair”.
“The one recurring theme on our artists’ landscape is funding.
“At the moment we face a perfect storm of funding challenges.”
Artists faced a tough, low-growth economy, with both big business and the public purse “tightening their strings”.
Mjekula thanked the government for supporting the NAF-inspired Creative City project for Grahamstown, which planned to create a new generation of artists while turning public spaces in the city into places for creative expression “so that Grahamstown continues to be alive with creativity and illustrates where our hearts and passions lie.
“And all of this is only possible because of this giant event which we are custodians of.”
He said the US Arts Agencies’ top reasons for funding the arts applied to SA: arts created jobs, stimulated the economy and drove tourism in rural areas.
The arts also unleashed the creativity which helped young minds solve complex problems and promoted the “physical and emotional health” of the public.
The arts support democracy and discourse and preserve culture and heritage. The arts deserve funding. Let Amazing (NAF slogan) begin.” — firstname.lastname@example.org