Grahamstown National Arts Festival

Old buildings and churches abound in Grahamstown.
Old buildings and churches abound in Grahamstown.

History

The National Arts Festival is a 10-day explosion of theatre, music, dance, art exhibitions, street performances, craft markets and much much more, that hits the Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown in South Africa every year at the end of June beginning of July. It was started in 1974 as a project of the Grahamstown Foundation, and has evolved into the leading arts festival on the whole African continent.  If you've been to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, this is a smaller version of that.  Over 120 000 supporters flock annually to Grahamstown,  an old 1820 Settler Town and home to Rhodes University, to experience one of the world's most diverse displays of creative talent, representing the full cross-section of South Africa's cultures.

Grahamstown

From 1652-1795, the Cape Colony was under Dutch rule.  However, the Netherlands was invaded by the French and Prince William of Orange fled to England and asked the British to look after the Cape for him.  This was the first British Occupation of the Cape which lasted until the Dutch asked them to leave in 1802.  However, the British saw what a prize the Cape was, and re-occupied it in 1806 when they attacked and defeated the Dutch settlers in the Battle of Blaauwberg. 

The British immediately tried to anglicize the Cape and forbade Dutch children to learn Dutch at school amongst other things.  Many of the Dutch settlers had farms and had intermarried with the French Huguenots who had arrived in the Cape in 1688 after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in France.  They were not happy with the policies of the British and left their farms and started heading east.  However, at the Fish River in the Eastern Cape, the Dutch met the Xhosa who were slowly moving South in search of new grazing for their cattle.  The meeting was not a happy one and fighting broke out, signalling the start of the frontier wars.  The British had to come to the rescue.

Grahamstown was founded by Lt. Colonel John Graham in 1812 as the military headquarters for a system of forts along the Fish River, which had been established as the boundary of the Cape Colony. However, the Xhosa did not recognise the boundary or the British for that matter.  Lord Charles Somerset became governor of the Colony in 1814 and he came up with a cunning plan which would do away with the need for more soldiers to maintain the frontier. At that time, there was much unemployment in Britain. Wars had ended, soldiers were jobless and the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Somerset out forward the suggestion that unemployed soldiers and other British people be sent to the Cape Colony to populate the areas on the banks of the Fish River, and serve as a human boundary to stop the Xhosa from  advancing south.  For the British Government, Somerset's frontier scheme seemed an ideal solution to both the problems existing in Britain and the Cape Colony. Unfortunately, they forgot to tell the Settlers the real reason for sending them to the Cape.

Adverts used by the British Government to attract settlers gave a very unrealistic description of the life they would have on the Frontier. The 100 acre land allotments for each family, which sounded like a dream come true for a cobbler in a small village in England, was totally inadequate for successful farming, especially as the Settlers were not of farming stock. Most had earned their living as artisans and craftsmen.

They were given seed, farming tools and dumped in the virgin bush.  The had to make temporary shelters or live in tents provided by some of the Dutch farmers, while they built a house to live in.  The area the were settled in was not a crop farming area.  It was called the Suurveld, which means sour ground as the soil was not suitable for crops.  The British Government forgot to tell them this part as well.  As crops failed , the British Settlers began drifting into towns, where they reverted to their former trades. The authorities at first tried to stop them from leaving their land as that was defeating the whole object of sending them there, but eventually granted the Settlers building plots in Grahamstown. So that's how Grahamstown became a Settler town.

Getting there

Although you can take a domestic flight from Johannesburg, Durban or Cape Town to Port Elizabeth, and then hire a car to drive to Grahamstown, I'd recommend hiring a car and driving from Cape Town.  If you do the trip over a few days, you can travel along the famous Garden Route and explore many of the beautiful coastal towns.

The Garden Route

Flying into Cape Town
Flying into Cape Town
Bloukrans Bridge on the Garden Route where you can stop to bungy jump
Bloukrans Bridge on the Garden Route where you can stop to bungy jump
Amazing meals at amazing restaurants along the Garden Route
Amazing meals at amazing restaurants along the Garden Route
Quaint seafood restaurant in Hermanus.
Quaint seafood restaurant in Hermanus.
Hermanus Harbour.
Hermanus Harbour.
Cape Dutch architecture in Swellendam.
Cape Dutch architecture in Swellendam.
Orgasmic Ostrich Bobotie
Orgasmic Ostrich Bobotie
Potjiekos, a traditional South African meal.
Potjiekos, a traditional South African meal.
Wilderness Lagoon
Wilderness Lagoon
Swartvlei, Sedgefield
Swartvlei, Sedgefield
Noetzie with castles built overlooking the beach.
Noetzie with castles built overlooking the beach.
Knysna Waterfront
Knysna Waterfront
Cape Dutch house
Cape Dutch house
Craft shops abound on the Garden Route.
Craft shops abound on the Garden Route.

The madness, the fun!

Pre-purchasing tickets before the festival has its advantages and disadvantages.  The advantage is, is that if it a popular show then you have a guaranteed ticket.  The disadvantage, is that you tend to race from show to show, having greedily purchased so many tickets that you didn't allow yourself breathing space in between.  Also, if a spontaneous unadvertised fringe festival show is supposedly awesome, you might miss out as your time is already allocated elsewhere with a pre-booked ticket.

The atmosphere at the festival is electric.  Random people stop you on the street to discuss shows they've seen.  People are everywhere.  It's crazy.  It's mad.  It';s the most fun you'll have.  Seriously!  I can't believe I had waited so many years before going to the festival.  On every street corner people are dancing and singing.  All halls are filled with art exhibitions and fringe festival shows.  The Grahamstown national Arts Festival rocks!

Art exhibitions wherever there is a blank wall.
Art exhibitions wherever there is a blank wall.
Some art was quite controversial.
Some art was quite controversial.
Buskers on the street.
Buskers on the street.
Dancing and singing groups.
Dancing and singing groups.
The egg man
The egg man

Things to do around Grahamstown

Grahamstown has many old Settler Museums you can explore, old forts you can visit.  Another good place to visit is the Observatory Museum which houses one of only two Victorian Cameras Obscura in the world - the other is in Bath, England.

For the outdoor enthusiast and adventurer, activities include skydiving, hunting, game viewing, fly-fishing, hang-gliding, abseiling, river rafting, walks through botanical gardens and mountaineering.

But the big thing you can do, is visit one of the many game parks where you can see the big five in the wild.  Once you've been to a game park, you'll never be able to set foot in a zoo again.  We went on a day safari to the Pumba Game Park, which was excellent and included an amazing lunch with barbecued kudu steaks.

Of course, all you might want to do is spend every day absorbing the fascinating arts and culture on display at the festival!

Pumba Game Park

Fresh kill, we narrowly missed the lions.
Fresh kill, we narrowly missed the lions.
This elephant walked right up to the vehicle.
This elephant walked right up to the vehicle.
Lunch
Lunch

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Comments 22 comments

blondepoet profile image

blondepoet 7 years ago from australia

Wow Cindy I found this blooming marvelous. You put heaps of work into this one. I love reading about different cultures. :)


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine Author

BP, this is my culture lol


Jerilee Wei profile image

Jerilee Wei 7 years ago from United States

You've certainly enlightened me on a place I would have never thought about traveling to before.


ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 7 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

This is really interewsting. I love travel and if I have not visited somewhere reading such a good article sbout it is nearly as good as a visit.


Hawkesdream profile image

Hawkesdream 7 years ago from Cornwall

Would love to take the garden route, looks fascinating, and that game park, great place. want to go now!


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine Author

Jerilee, South Africa is a great holiday destination with much to see and enjoy. Definitely worth a visit!

Ethel, armchair travel is a cheaper option.

Hawke, book your plane ticket and go!


Candie V profile image

Candie V 7 years ago from Whereever there's wolves!! And Bikers!! Cummon Flash, We need an adventure!

Home Sweet Home.. "Wherever I wander, Wherever I roam, there's no place like home!" Breathtaking. There's nothing like an arts festival to get people out for fun!


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine Author

And Candie, having attended this festival as all those photos are mine, not off the internet, it was AWESOME!


Cris A profile image

Cris A 7 years ago from Manila, Philippines

Another thorough read! I really think you should work for some tourism board or organization. I love festivals, festivities, fiestas, feasts and all the letter F's! LOL they revive and add color to life and highlight "indigenous" cultures. Nice one! And cool pictures, too! :D


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine Author

Cris, great you enjoyed the hub, now you know the time of year you have to come and visit!


Cris A profile image

Cris A 7 years ago from Manila, Philippines

Only if you're back there! :D


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine Author

Yes Cris, am usually there that time of year!


alekhouse profile image

alekhouse 7 years ago from Louisville, Kentucky

Enjoyed reading all the history and seeing the pictures. I know I would love the festival. I love Africa; spent a summer there a few years back.....not in South Africa, but Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, Lake Kivu, the congo, etc. It was awesome. Would really like to return and visit south Africa.


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine Author

Alekhouse, it's definitely worth the visit and I can highly recommend the festival


ralwus 7 years ago

I enjoyed this my friend. You put a lot of work into it. Now you may need to explain to the good folk what a Camera Obscura is. I know what it is but I bet 99% of your readers don't know. Also this is where we got the geranium from is it not? It's a lovely country and I would love to visit it someday. Thanks so much for sharing this along with your fabulous photography. you rock


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine Author

Thanks CC, the camera obscura was a box with a hole in it that let light through and projected the image onto paper which was then traced. It was the forerunner of photography. Geraniums are indigenous plants, yes. I did put easily about 4 hours into this hub, but unfortunately, it seems the more work you put into a hub, the less interest people have in viewing it. But, although they don't get many views, I'll continue with my travel hubs as I think in the long run they'll last long after the other hubs have faded.


ralwus 7 years ago

I think it is wonderful dear and people do take great interest in them. thanks hun


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine Author

CC, you always make my day!


blondepoet profile image

blondepoet 7 years ago from australia

Loved this one


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 7 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine Author

You'll have to come and visit this time of the year and I'll take you to the festival!


Johan Smulders profile image

Johan Smulders 2 years ago from East London, South Africa

Great article and photos. Well done!


cindyvine profile image

cindyvine 2 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine Author

Went again this year and it was great!

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