The Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK National Arts Festival) debuted in 1994 with the dawn of Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation but for several years after that, the Festival had a checkered history which included beer cans and bottles being thrown at Miriam Makeba when she appeared on stage at the 1997 festival. The Festival gained a notorious reputation when a small group of revellers popped up the old South African flag at the Festival and on their t-shirts. Perhaps the most offensive was when revellers boasted the slogan on their t-shirts that proclaimed, ‘Praat Afrikaans of hou jou bek’ (Speak Afrikaans or keep your mouth shut).
This year’s twenty-fourth edition of the Festival has come a long way far from that hostile past. A more humanised Festival has entered a democratic and constitutional South Africa with vigour, passion and with its arms, hearts and minds wide open; and the Festival has given an opportunity for good Afrikaners to be noticed. Oudtshoorn was full of them!
At this year’s Festival, there were no old South African flags popping out. There were no stalls selling t-shirts with offensive slogans. It didn’t matter if you did not speak Afrikaans, you were still welcome. You could buy halaal shawarmas alongside Karoo kudu-wors. The local Chinese migrants in the Western Cape even visited the Festival. A mixed-race couple walking down Baron van Rheede Street no longer raised an eyebrow. On the day that Winnie Mandela died, even a reference to her in Mike van Graan’s satire, State Fracture, didn’t get a jolly howl from the audience.
Even though the Festival was still largely White, it was not unusual to see significant numbers of White and Coloured people sitting at the same table socialising and engaging each other while their toddlers jovially played with each other on the jumping castle. Music was the magnet that was holding them together. In the Netwerk24 venue, which housed some difficult but essential conversations about the state of the nation, there was a shared passion for a South Africa that must be a home to all its people.
The Festival’s Uitkampteater project was a testament to a Festival that is fast changing. Established three years ago with funding from the Embassy of the Netherlands, the Uitkampteater Project is one of the most exciting initiatives in South Africa to grow new writing, build new audiences and to transform the arts.
Set up as a series of small ‘blackbox’ theatres on the promenade near the marketplace, each ‘blackbox’ seats about 20 people and has a production that is about 20 minutes long. Each production is performed about five times during the day. The productions range from a high school production mentored by professionals, a community-based theatre production, a professional solo play, a new cutting-edge experimental work, a professional production and an international work. There is even one ‘blackbox’ with a children’s theatre production. The tickets for each production cost R20.
The Uitkampteater site is literally the new soul of the reformed and integrated KKNK Festival. It is from here that audiences are flowing over to other sites at the Festival, and it’s not going to be very long before Oudtshoorn’s neglected communities fully embrace the Festival. There is a driving force behind all this positive energy. It’s an artistic director who is passionate about people in as much as he is passionate about the arts. He is a visionary man who understands that for excellence to thrive a genuine and committed investment must be made in development.
During the Festival, artistic director Hugo Theart is seen around in the streets engaging with people. His long and busy schedule includes an umpteenth number of meetings with media, sponsors, community and arts stakeholders, artists and audiences. He is an empathetic listener, a healer of problems, a solution-seeker and a real change-maker. He is a man with a vision and a mission. Supporting him is a small team of five full-time staff and six interns who are bright, sprightly and full of smiles. It’s a dream team for any festival director. The KKNK has courageously embarked on a new journey and the South African festival sector could not be in more capable hands.
The Festival’s future is full of promise and hope. This year, there’ll be five permanent public artworks funded by the Festival’s title sponsor, Absa, which will remain in the town beyond the Festival to continue to inspire its town’s folks. Next year, Absa intends to install five more permanent public artworks. Each of these artworks are dynamic testimonies of how the arts can bury dinosaurs and let new birds fly with freedom. This year marks ten years since Miriam Makeba died. From wherever her soul soars, it must be pleased that there’s a new dawn in Oudtshoorn. Maybe next year, Dr Paul Bayliss, the curator of ABSA’s public artworks programme will find a way to commission an artist to gather broken beer bottles to create an artwork that will stand as a redemption of the Festival’s past.
For now, start saving money because next year’s twenty-fifth edition of the KKNK Festival is going to be one of South Africa’s best festival highlights.