For ten days every July, Grahamstown bursts to overflowing as the town’s population doubles, with visitors descending for the annual National Arts Festival – usually called the Grahamstown Festival. At this time, seemingly every home is transformed into a B&B and the streets are alive with colourful food stalls. Church halls, parks and sports fields become flea markets and several hundred shows are staged, spanning every conceivable type of performance.
This is the largest arts festival in Africa, and even has its own fringe festival. The hub of the event is the 1820 Settlers Monument, which hosts not only big drama, dance and operatic productions in its theatres, but also art exhibitions and free early-evening concerts. While work by African performers and artists is well represented, and is perhaps the more interesting aspect of the festival for tourists, the festival-goers and performers are still predominantly white.
The published programme – spanning jazz, classical music, drama, dance, cabaret, opera, visual arts, crafts, films and a book fair – is bulky, but absolutely essential; it’s worth planning your time carefully to avoid walking the potentially cold July streets without seeing much of the festival proper. If you don’t feel like taking in a show, the free art exhibitions at the museums, Monument and other smaller venues are always worth a look. For more information and bookings, contact the Grahamstown Foundation (046 622 3082, www.nafest.co.za).