Creative juices flow where water does not

By Helgard Muller

The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa, has a major economic impact on the Eastern Cape and an estimated R340-million is spent each year. Yet the future of the event is under threat, not by the economy or lack of creativity, but by the erratic supply of water.

Once a year, since 1974, the university town of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape hosts a major arts and cultural event: the National Arts Festival. This event puts Grahamstown firmly on the map as the biggest annual celebration of the arts on the African continent. Over the past 10 years, the festival has grown by more than 60%, outstripping inflation and setting record after record. The event has a major economic impact on the city, and an estimated R340-million is spent in the Eastern Cape because of the festival — R90-million of which in Grahamstown. About 500 journalists receive accreditation to cover the event, and hours and hours of broadcasting time follows on television and radio.

But all is not well. In an open letter published in Grocotts Mail on Friday, 15 July 2016, Tony Lankester, CEO of the section 21 company running the event, expressed serious concerns about the future of this festival. His worry and main challenge being neither the slowing economy nor the lack of funding or artistic inspiration, but water. The reason: at this year’s festival in June, while the people and money flowed through the town of Grahamstown, the water didn’t.

He rightfully argued that, “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. The supply of water during the 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.”

Lankester argued, “We can’t, as we did one night during the festival, have 2 000 people in the monument without a single running tap. We can’t turn 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 the influx of visitors.”

He continued, “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.”

In an objective way, Tony pays credit to the men and the women from the water department who work so hard during the festival, patching over crumbling infrastructure; battling municipal cash flow issues that make it hard for them to get essential parts and supplies; and getting out of bed in the middle of the night to fix a burst pipe or flooded pump station. Those workers who barely manage to keep it together, but cannot win against the bigger enemy that he identifies as the “neglect, apathy, and lack of political will” of the municipal powers in the Grahamstown City Hall.

Lankester pleads for a proper plan. He concludes: “The city and the province need 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 10 years’ time.”

Lankester’s letter is available on the festival’s website at


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