Destinations: Everything was illuminated at National Arts Festival [NAF] 2022 – live in Makhanda, South Africa

TheCapeRobyn was at 2022 NAF- a remarkable, incredible, awesome, inspiring and often very surreal National Arts Festival in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), Eastern Cape, South Africa which took place from June 23 to July 3, 2022. Live NAF is over but the vNAF – the online platform is available as video-on-demand until July 31, so after you finish reading this, visit and click on the vFRinge and do your own NAF from the device of your choice.


On the opening day of NAF, it was announced that the mask mandate had been lifted and that indoor venues could be ticketed to a 100 percent capacity. I walked into the festival office at The Monument (1820s Settlers Monument) and there was disbelief and jubilation. This was a curve ball – in a good way – but one can imagine that it was bundled with logistical issues. Full venues meant increased security and amping up land arrangements. The festival staff was chilled and upbeat, unflappable. Then we heard about the nationwide loadshedding and the possibility of level 6 being activated. I thought that level 6 was a prank but it wasn’t as we were to see as Makhanda was plunged into the dark as the whole country was throttled by Eskom’s ongoing strike action (unresolved as of July 8). Everyone was asking- why NAF could not receive a dispensation to be bypassed so that the power could stay on for Africa’s largest arts festival which has not had a live iteration since 2019. The answer: If NAF got the lights-on nod, then every festival and event in South Africa, would ask for an exemption. Uhhm, and what is wrong with that? If the Rugby World Cup was on the go, I would lay a bet that the powers that be, would have given a green light for the power stay on; interrupted. Just saying.

Moving along, the vibe was that shows would go on and that everyone would work around loadshedding. The main venues were equipped with generators. Time slots were juggled and some venues were changed. Many venues were packed or filled to near capacity. It was gratifying to see an influx of audiences from Makhanda and surrounds. When people heard about the lifting of the mask mandate and the 100 percent ticketing in place, they got on the road and drove to Makhanda from Cape Town, Johannesburg and wherever. I bumped into tons of people who literally made a last- minute decision to get to NAF. Despite the cold (it is freezing in Makhanda), the potholes (a feature of Makhanda – but the main arterial roads were in good nick and the N2 -in excellent shape) and loadshedding, there was a sense of excitement – to be back at live NAF. Security – top marks – police and private companies patrolling.

Everything was illuminated

At NAF 2022, I had a sense of everything being illuminated. The Makhanda sunsets were spectacular. I would stand at the Monument or in the town, between shows and marvel, along with others, at the beauty of our landscape. The light shined through the dark. The lighting at the venues seemed to be enhanced – with saturated hues. It was as if, we were entering an alternative universe, where everything was heightened.

Gavin Krastin’s exhibition, a culmination of his 12 Labours project was displayed at the Sun Gallery at The Monument. It was bathed in shimmering pink- in blurple (blue-purple) – a magenta, flushed with pink. In a walkabout at 12 Labours, Krastin told us that it is apparently the “perfect spectrum of light for plant growth”. 12 Labours was very much about activation of growth, healing and gratitude – in public and personal domains by Krastin and his team of gnomes, labouring in the months leading up to NAF, fixing potholes, refurbishing traffic circles, bus stops, de-trashing a waste site of plastic. Krastin’s exhibition at the Monument, shimmering like an orgiastic light was like a beacon, a magnet, as we entered the Monument foyer. It stopped me in my tracks. I am quoting Scott Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby with ‘orgiastic’, but looking at Cambridge English dictionary: “feelings of great pleasure and excitement”, well that is exactly what the blurple of 12 Labours did for me, every time, I saw it, glimmering and illuminated at The Monument.

Talking about being overawed, on the closing weekend, I arrived at the Monument at dusk and the building was lit up in shades of deep purple, magenta, pink and blue, signposted with the Standard Bank Ovation Awards (the ceremony took place late evening July 2, when I had left). The awards recognise excellence and innovation on the Fringe. In addition to cash prizes (in the gold, silver and bronze categories), all the award winners gain traction, post festival. An Ovation award leads to increased opportunities in getting a foot in the door at other festivals. Theatres and producers pick up shows. This is already happening, in the week after NAF, with announcements by artists that have been invited to stage their work.

NAF 2022 was a triumph- not “sad”

There was a tweet doing the rounds that the NAF “used to be such “a beautiful meeting place for all artists… Sad to see what’s become of it”. The tweet was accompanied by a broken heart emoji; cracked through the centre. No, NAF was not sad.  It was thrilling, invigorating. I know the name of the tweeter but if I publish the name, you are likely to be diverted into reading the string. The tweeter was apparently not at the festival and came in for a ribbing that she was not there and yet felt at liberty to make assertions of the festival being “sad” and by implication a big fail.  For those of there, present at the comeback festival, we can attest that it was not sad.  We may have been saddened by loadsdhedding, by some of the work we saw which reflects ruptures around us and by other issues percolating in our country, but the festival was not “sad”. It was a triumph. The Curated and Fringe programmes were diverse – offering a breathtaking range of shows – including drama, comedy and family fare. I did not see one ‘dud’. Most of the shows on the Fringe that I saw, received Standard Bank Ovation Awards.

Switched-on arts in South Africa

The work was awe inspiring, innovative, brave, joyous and heart breaking, celebratory, reflective – and switched-on to who we are as a nation. Eskom is switched off but the arts community in South Africa is switched on. When lockdown clicked in, 2020, NAF immediately pivoted online, providing a platform and an audience, with its virtual NAF. In 2021, the plan was to hold a hybrid festival, with some live components on in Makhanda, live shows in cities and live streaming, online. Shortly before lights-on for 2021 NAF, we went into another lockdown. Many artists were in Makhanda. They performed on stage, with no audience in attendance; crew only. It was freaky but transcendent and triumphal. Those shows were streamed online– many in real time – i.e. simultaneous with the live show. The result was extraordinary – with the emergence of the screen as a vital medium for live performance.

Then it was 2022, with the green light to go with a live NAF festival, albeit with limited attendance and mandatory mask wearing. Boom, on opening day, came the amazing news that it was a go ahead for full houses and no masks but pity about the roadblock of loadshedding.  NAF transcended the challenges. Everything was illuminated – revitalized by the energy, creativity, sheer resourcefulness of the artists, producers and the organisers.

Change-making festival- millions of rands of difference

The hashtag of NAF2022, was #ITWillChangeYou. It did change all of us who were there – immersed in the lights and illuminations – physical manifestations (such as Krastin’s 12 Labours, glowing in blurple; The Ovation Awards light installation at the Monument, lights on the theatre, sunsets) and the emotional expressions – being uplifted by the woke edition of NAF, a shining luminescence in the winter of our discontent, in South Africa, Africa and elsewhere. Sure, there were land arrangement issues: Transport (no ubers in Makhanda, like many small towns, not enough cars but this is global crunch in terms of the availability of hire cars, in the fall out from the pandemic; issues in signage at venues and navigating the festival) but the festival has re-woken, after a three year hiatus of not being live and these are easy to fix quibbles- with funding. A big round of applause to Standard Bank for its continue support of the Festival. I challenge other corporates to come to the party and to start planning for NAF2023- and make the #NAF2023 edition glow -in every way. The value of the festival goes beyond the arts. It is a destination festival, activating tourism and supply chains. In a media release issued by NAF 2022, National Arts Festival CEO, Monica Newton said: “The Festival has, in previous years, brought around R90 million into the Eastern Cape city. For some, it’s a festive celebration but for many, there is an opportunity for income generation, either directly with the Festival or in surrounding businesses.” Salutations to NAF 2023.

Hamlet – the loadshedded edition. Director Janni Younge, warming up the audience, at Hamlet, NAF 2022, in the Rhodes Theatre, June 27. Younge advised the audience that the lights would go out at 9pm and please to allow a few minutes for the generator to kick in and for the show to continue. We were asked to raise our arms to give us an idea of the work involved in puppeteering- holding and moving puppets. © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, NAF 2022.
12 Labours: Gavin Krastin’s exhibition/installation, glowing at the Monument, in blurple. See and
© TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, NAF 2022.
Illuminating theatre: Bloke & His American Bantu by Siphiwo Mahala on the Curated Programme at NAF 2022.
© TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, NAF 2022.
Conversations: Siphiwo Mahala with Mandla Mbothwe. Dr Mahala is the writer of Bloke & His American Bantu which was on the Curated Programme at NAF. The brilliantly written two hander is set in the 1960s, and re-imagines, the rapport between intellectuals, Bloke Modisane and Langston Hughes. Mandla Mbothwe heads up Mud, Fire & Parables in Cape Town, is an artistic director at Magnet Theatre and is involved in a myriad of research projects and festivals. This pic, was taken in the Makhanda cold, after the electrifying performance of Koleka Putuma’s, HULLO, BU-BYE, KOKO, COME IN, at the Hangar.
© TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, NAF 2022.

❇ Featured image – sunset, The Monument, NAF 2022. Image credits: © TheCapeRobyn/Robyn Cohen, NAF 2022.