Can art save this city?

artcityHere’s a little throwback post for you. This time last year, I was gearing up for my near-annual trip to Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival. I head down to G’town most years (as often as I can) and have a deep love for the quirky little town and the wonderful arts festival it hosts every year.

In 2015, as part of the festival coverage I had planned, I was working on a project for – a fantastic, but short-lived independent journalism project backed by The Guardian (UK). The article I had proposed was about the economic impact of the Festival, and called “Can art save this city?”.

Below is the article that resulted from this project. I had so much to say, and so little space, but I am reasonably happy with the result, and since Contributoria closed its doors shortly thereafter, I share the article on this platform for your interest.

[Please do not republish without permission.]



A steady trickle of water runs down the pavement. In the cracks and crevices there’s already a green fuzzy algae blooming that tells me this particular stream has been around for months. It criss-crosses the path as I make my way up Hill Street, Grahamstown. The source is just outside the church hall – a hole in the tarmac with upturned paving, and fetid brown water seeping out.

A crowd has gathered with tickets in hand. Inside the hall, actors from the Makana Arts Academy are preparing for the 4pm performance of Waterline. We’re almost a week into the 2015 National Arts Festival, and word has got around: you need to see this one. The play is a workshopped piece of theatre, directed by renowned theatre-maker Rob Murray, about Grahamstown’s on-going water woes.

Makana Municipality – the council that runs Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa – was placed under administration in late 2014. After years of sputtering water supply, issues with refuse collection and electricity provision, accusations of rampant corruption and financial mismanagement, the provincial government stepped in, in a desperate effort to right the ship.

“Sometimes we don’t have water for two months. Sometimes it comes out the tap like mud,” says Grahamstown resident Ziyanda*. “We heard [a rumour] that the municipality had to borrow money from Rhodes to pay staff, and then we see the mayor driving around in a new Mercedes.” She laughs, but her fists are balled.

Ziyanda lives in Joza, a township in Grahamstown. She’s got a job this week, working in a residential home that is playing host to both a temporary clothes shop and a takeaway food stall for the duration of the festival. It’s a small town, and this is their biggest event of the year, creating around 400 temporary jobs every year. According to economists, the “arts fest” brought in over R340 million to the province last year.

Today though, Ziyanda’s not working. She’s got a few hours off, and she wants to see Waterline.

A picture of inequality

The municipal troubles are just the start of the town’s issues. The problem is not that there’s no money in Makana, just that – as in most of South Africa – it is unevenly distributed. Makana is home to around 80,000 people. According to the latest available census data from 2011, 10% of Makana residents live in “informal dwellings” or shacks, a third are employed, and the average household income is less than R30,000 annually.

To put that in perspective, the average bank teller in South Africa can expect to earn R80,000 a year. In 2014, the budget for Makana’s mayor was over R700,000. Around 5% of residents (roughly 4,000 people) earn over R300,000 a year, but 13% (10, 400 people) have no income at all.

Conversely, Grahamstown has some of the most expensive private** schools. It costs over R80,000 to send your son to StAndrews College for a year, 2.6 times the average income for the area. The centrepiece is Rhodes University – a small liberal arts college. Studying for a BA degree at Rhodes, excluding accommodation, costs over R37,000 per year, putting it far out of the reach of your average Grahamstown school-leaver.

The GINI coefficient (a measure of inequality) of South Africa sits at 0.59, making us the most unequal of our “middle income” country peer group. This is despite huge gains made through public spending aimed at lifting people out of extreme poverty, one of the Millenium Development Goals. But as our global focus shifts to the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have to ask “Is taking people out of extreme poverty enough?”

A cash injection

On the stage of the Guy Butler Theatre – the headline stage of the festival – veteran satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys is mid-way through his matinee. He wears a sequined shirt and high heels. Today he is Bambi Kellerman, one of his best-known characters.

“Have you seen the boys with the painted faces on the streets?” Bambi asks us. All across the city, small groups of young black boys have gathered, painted their faces white and placed out a cup, a tin, a hat – they’re begging for a taste of the money that floods in with the visitors every July. Toss them a coin and the scraggly “statues” come to life, tapping out a few dance moves or a song. Everyone’s an artist during festival.

Rhodes economics lecturer Professor Jen Snowball, together with Professor Geoff Antrobus, conducted the economic impact study on the festival. Snowball believes the spinoff benefits, economically speaking, impact the town broadly and stretch beyond the date limits of the festival. But, she cautions, the potential impact is limited because many of the services and goods needed must be brought in from outside of town. “There is no doubt that the [festival] results in some additional employment – both direct and indirect,” she says. “The [festival] office itself employs many temporary helpers, but so do other organisations who provide services to visitors, or to artists, producers and sellers. This has a knock-on effect, known as the multiplier.”

The multiplier means that for every rand spent in town during the festival, R1.9 is created. “The more money that stays in Grahamstown, that is spent and re-spent on goods and services, the bigger the [multiplier] will be. Unfortunately, Grahamstown doesn’t have a very big supply base,” she continues. Money spent on services outside of town present ‘leakages’. “These reduce the size of the multiplier, making the economic impact and job creation potential of the festival smaller. So one way to increase the impact of the festival (and any other event) is to encourage people to ‘buy local’ where at all possible.”

Getting creative

‘Buy local’ is one of the principles of Creative City (CC) – a new initiative established by the festival office. This ambitious project is attempting to address some of the systemic inequalities through strategic, creative and artistic ventures. The media bags for the Festival, for example, were sewn by local women, and the Makana Arts Academy is their flagship project.

Festival CEO Tony Lankester says: “Creative City came about as a result of an increased awareness that we need to do more to help the city on a particular kind of trajectory. Grahamstown is a poor city in a poor province with ridiculously high levels of unemployment. What we do for 11 days a year is great, but there’s 354 other days in a year that also need attention.”

The festival office’s strengths, according to Lankester, lie in their established brand and their partnerships, so for CC they looked for ways to use these. Those partners now include the provincial government, the National Lottery, Makana Municipality, Makana Tourism and Rhodes University. Another significant boost came through the European Union who put forward R6 million in grant funding.

Lankester says: “As dysfunctional as [the municipality] is much of the time, this need is something they recognised as well. Grahamstown is a festival city; It already has a fair amount of creativity going on, so how do we harness this, and herd the cats, so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts?”

There is now a series of activities that fall under this CC banner. A mass choir concert called Masicule (meaning “Let’s sing” in Xhosa) is one of their most popular efforts. The event was held for the second time this year, and featured choirs from across the city, including one from Ntsika Secondary School – a “no fees” public high school in the township. CC has also employed a visual arts teacher for the school. “Maybe the next William Kentridge is in there, we don’t know,” says Lankester. “But we do know that having creative stimulus in your life helps you in so many other spheres. It helps with maths, with other disciplines. There’s tonnes of research showing this. And because that’s working, we may now look at a similar thing at another school in the township – around music or drama perhaps.”

Madeleine Schoeman is the principal at Ntsika. “Our kids really love singing. With Masicule, this brings another dimension – to perform for the public at the City Hall and on the Guy Butler stage. It is important for town and township people, she says. “There is a huge divide in Grahamstown, but people know Masicule, and they want to go. Creative City has brought people into contact.”

Schoeman also has high praise for the “Foto Fence” amateur photography competition hosted by CC that culminated in a public exhibition. “Town people came to look and realised that there are people on the other side of the divide who are also talented. I think the biggest advantage is that it opens up doors and connections between the two groups. Creative City reaches right down the bottom as well as to the top. If we can just open up the world for these children, give them opportunities. It’s not charity; they must still practice and paint. But they get recognition for their work, for who they are,” adds Schoeman.

Among other things, CC funded the training of 20 sound technicians, and leased land to create an open air cinema – intended as a meeting place for residents from both sides of town. “Trying to break down those barriers is on the agenda. It’s a big ask for a small organisation. You’re asking us to fix something that’s endemic in this country,” says Lankester.

So, can art save Grahamstown?

Not alone, it can’t. Grahamstown – like all of South Africa – needs focused interventions and broad-based economic upliftment, driven by transparent government and a transformed corporate citizenry.

But art can give a 15-year old a creative outlet, and belief in her talents. Art can lead to jobs, backstage and in the sound booths for passionate techies. And it can put our thirst for water, for service delivery and equality, literally on stage.



*not her real name

**Private schools in South Africa are not government-funded. Unlike the UK system, “public school” means government-funded.

Image: Kate Ferreira

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