South Africa, Life, etc

Op-Ed: Grahamstown – great festival, shame about the place

By Niki Moore 30 July 2015

The Grahamstown Festival, a worldwide phenomenon which celebrates its 41st birthday this year, is as good as it ever needs to be but the same cannot be said for the badly maintained town of Grahamstown and the performance of the Makana Municipality. By NIKI MOORE.

The recent Grahamstown Festival was, just as the posters said, Eleven days of amazing. Where else in the world would you see dance, jazz, theatre, fine art, performance art, film, agitprop, symphony, rock, comedy, cabaret, stand-up, museums … all within a few kilometres of each other and within 11 days?

This year the festival celebrated its 41st birthday, and for at least the last 40 years the earnest bespectacled types have been asking if the festival is “relevant”, and if it is … well, is it not just too “elite”? Frankly, it is hard to see how the festival could become any more relevant than it is, and it would be just as hard to see how symphony, ballet, international jazz and sculpture could be any less elite than it is. It’s like asking if the sun really needs to be so hot.

But there is so much more to the festival than the “elite” aspect of it. There might be some roleplayers who end the festival poorer than they began. And there might be local people who are not in a position to cash in. But if anyone had any doubts about relevance, they should ask themselves where else the start-up dancing troupes and township thespians would get a platform, not to mention the numerous craft and cooldrink and boerie-roll stands that have people queueing up to buy their goods.

So – in a rather short and superficial summing up: the festival is now as good as it ever needs to be. It is a worldwide phenomenon; a place where South Africans can experience things they would never see anywhere else; in a small and charming university town that is walkable from one end to the other; where, if anything, there is almost too much diversity; and where, for that week and a half, one can live in a rarified atmosphere of arts and culture, as well as helping to pump revenue into the local economy.

So then why has the Makana Municipality not come to the party?

The actual town of Grahamstown during the festival – that annual showcase that attracts many thousands, and a swathe of international media coverage – was a dump. There were piles of litter in every nook and cranny, there were heaps of uncollected refuse on street corners, there were dead animals in culverts, there were holes bubbling water from burst mains pipes, there were crumbling pavements, potholes, faded street signs, rubbed-out street markings and boarded-up, derelict-looking buildings.

More importantly, the city fathers did nothing to promote Grahamstown during the festival, or piggyback on the event to empower its citizens. There were no city tours, no tourist souvenirs, no guided walks: no attempt whatsoever to leverage the platform of the festival to spin off some advantage and attract festival-goers to venture outside the event’s confines. There was only a criticism that the festival did very little for the citizens of Grahamstown. As if an injection of R90-million of direct tourist spend into the city’s coffers, somehow, did not count. It seems the Makana Municipality wants the festival, in 11 days, to fix all the devastation it diligently works to create during the other 354. Now, THAT would be pretty amazing.

But Grahamstown was not always like this. The current rot can be traced back to 2011, when Zamuxolo Peter became mayor. It has been hinted that the reason he got the job in the first place, and why he occupied it immovably until recently, was “political interference”. Still, it is puzzling that a man can get a job for which he so is clearly and disastrously unsuited. But then again, this is South Africa.

When the city’s council was finally – after years of citizens begging for intervention – placed under administration in August 2014, Peter admitted that the new administrator, Pam Yako, (who earned R27,000 a day) had to find a solution to potholed roads, collapsed infrastructure, chronic water and electrical outages, failed revenue collection, massive litigation against the municipality and general financial chaos, R132-million worth of municipal debt, along with three consecutive disclaimers from the auditor-general – all of which happened on his watch.

None of this litany of disaster seemed to distress Peter at all. He showed no inclination to resign in disgrace amidst the ruins of what used to be a very pretty little place. In fact, when it was revealed that the mayoral car had be auctioned off at half of its value to pay creditors, Peter found it funny.

At the end of August 2014, East London auditing firm Kabuso presented a report in which it painted a depressing picture of widespread corruption in the council. To date, no charges have been brought, despite regular protests in Grahamstown calling for the mayor and council to resign.

Last Friday, the ANC Eastern Cape got everyone’s hopes up when it announced in Port Elizabeth’s Herald newspaper that the top three officials in the municipality would be “redeployed”, following the report. A news report on Monday explained that Peter would be sent to the Sara Baartman municipality (formerly Cacadu) as a mayoral council member: a strange decision seeing that Peter is unpopular wherever he goes and that he has been implicated in massive corruption and misspending.

The exit report written by Yako noted that some small progress had been made (ie, she had increased the amount of spending of the Municipal Infrastructure Grant), but that she had not really managed to do much else. She would have needed to employ a full-time qualified municipal manager, a full-time qualified chief financial officer, and should have implemented the recommendations of the Kabuso forensic report. And, despite her R3-million fee, she has still not been able to get the municipality to answer its phones (persistent calls to the Makana Municipality went unanswered). It really does not look as if much is going to change in the foreseeable future.

But Grahamstown, really, has no excuse. The city has a university full of young, bright, energetic students and it has a world-class cultural event that brings in the crowds every year. From the looks of the town there are plenty of opportunities for jobs as street cleaners, pavement repairers, tree trimmers, building painters, pothole fixers and grass cutters. The money the municipality actually has spent – on parties and staff workshops, irregular litigation, pit toilets at R12,000 apiece, mayoral cars, staff catering and soccer tours – could have created hundreds of temporary jobs and also could have gone a long way towards training, skills development and empowerment around both the university and the festival.

In the event, the organiser of the Grahamstown Festival stepped in this year to make sure that there would be no load-shedding during the festivities. This was a considerable coup, seeing the Makana Municipality owes Eskom so much in unpaid arrears that in April Eskom was threatening to switch the town off altogether. The brightly-coloured posters, the flags and the bunting went a long way towards disguising the disintegration of infrastructure and generally depressing decay. The university itself contributes towards the town’s coffers through rates, but requires little from the municipality as it does its own maintenance.

So – the tired old trope of the relevance of the Grahamstown Festival, or the renaming of Rhodes University, perhaps should be replaced by a newer, much more exciting question: what will these two august institutions do to help Grahamstown fulfil its potential as a shining economic powerhouse in the otherwise impoverished and chaotic Eastern Cape? DM

Photo: Grahamstown (Wikimedia Commons)

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