It is difficult to imagine that legendary South African singer Miriam Makeba was pelted with beer cans by drunken Afrikaner racists at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) in the rural town of Oudtshoorn 25 years ago.
The festival has changed significantly from those early days of our democracy, but there are many things that remain rooted in the past.
The festival, which was hosted last week after a two-year Covid-enforced absence, has become a lot more inclusive at some levels, and the drunken louts who booed one of the greatest singers to have been produced by South Africa wouldn’t stand much of a chance today. They would probably not even have been allowed inside because entrance at all events required a vaccination certificate and unreasonable, boorish people are unlikely to be vaccinated.
Many of the productions featured black actors, writers or directors — but I still got a feeling that the festival is ultimately a showcase for the best of white Afrikaans arts and culture performances, which is what it subliminally intended to be in 1994.
Over the past few years, the festival has tried to extend its reach into the “coloured” and African areas, but this does not mean much if the locals who live in those areas are not able to attend the few performances in their local community or school hall.
The majority of Oudtshoorn’s working-class black — as in African — and “coloured” residents could not afford the R50 daily entrance fee at the “feesmark”, which consisted of food, beverage, clothing and other stalls as well as carousel rides. They could also not afford to pay between R150 and R250 for performances. Given the economic situation in this generally poor town, it was always unlikely that the residents of Bridgeton and Bongolethu would stream into the town centre to attend the festival.
But maybe that was the point. They were not the target market of the festival organisers and especially the sponsors, who were chasing the rands of moneyed locals and tourists who had come to town specifically to attend the festival.
Maybe I am not being completely honest here. I was invited by the organisers to participate in a panel discussion on the private sector’s response to South Africa becoming more and more of a welfare state. Some of my expenses were paid, but I still spent a significant amount on extending my stay, tickets for the performances I wanted to see, attending and buying stuff at the feesmark and, of course, having meals.
This is always the dichotomy of festivals in South Africa: you want to diversify and become representative, but you also have to pander to sponsors who want a return on their investment and target people with money which, in South Africa, means white people and a few, like myself, who have benefited from affirmative action and black economic empowerment when opportunities that we never had under apartheid opened up after 1994.
The panel discussion in which I participated had three white participants and me. The facilitator was black, but I still felt outnumbered.
I noticed it with some other shows I watched. For instance, Louis Mhlanga was the only black person on stage for his guitar concert, and quite a few shows had white leads with black actors playing back-up and much smaller roles. Please don’t ask me to stop focusing on race because, unfortunately, in situations like this, it is always about race. And economics, too, of course.
Judging from the few shows I managed to see, it was clear that there is a phenomenon of people who grew up white and privileged — and in the case of this festival, Afrikaans — fighting against the way they were raised and the values they were taught.
It is not necessarily a rejection of that upbringing — most people find it difficult to reject their roots, no matter how bad their situation might have been — but it is more about trying to understand the role your formative years played in turning you into the person you eventually became. It could also be a way of blaming your upbringing for all the bad bits of your personality and behaviour as an adult.
Many decades ago, I interviewed Wynand Malan, who had left the National Party and, as an independent, beat their candidate in Randburg during the national elections in 1987.
I asked him why he took so long to break away from the National Party and he said it was difficult to turn your back on a party that was part of every aspect of your life growing up.
The National Party might not be with us any more, but many of its old supporters and their offspring are still prominent in Afrikaans society and are the kind of people who many of the performers at the KKNK were protesting against.
David Kramer, who performed what he said might be his last concert — he is now 70 and has been in the entertainment industry for more than 50 years — hinted at the angst that has beset Afrikaans speakers for many years.
He recounted the story of how his debut album was banned by the SAUK (Suid-Afrikaanse Uitsaai Korporasie, now known as the South African Broadcasting Corporation or SABC). He was told that his songs, which were a mengelmoes of Afrikaans and English, insulted Afrikaans. He laughed when he recalled how, in 1999, he received an award from the KKNK for his contribution to Afrikaans.
The writer Marita van der Vyver (’n Baie lang brief aan my dogter), who now lives in France, dealt with this resistance to her strict Afrikaans upbringing in a discussion about her book. She felt it was important to show her daughter that there were different possibilities in life.
The brilliant play, Ek, Anna van Wyk, dealt with the issue much more brutally. The main character, brilliantly played by Tinarie van Wyk-Loots, rebels against her Afrikaner upbringing, patriarchy in particular, and pays the price for it. It was a disturbing play to watch early on a Sunday morning.
One of the positives is that the festival is trying to embrace our changing society, but they are doing it in the context of wanting to protect and promote Afrikaans, which comes with its own limitations.
There appears to be an acceptance that while the past of Afrikaans is wrongfully assumed to be white, its future is not white, but lies in its acceptance as a means of communication by more and more South Africans of all races, colours and cultural backgrounds.
If we can only work class into this equation, then we would have made real progress. DM