Bridging Generations, Celebrating Creativity – the National Arts Festival at Fifty

As the National Arts Festival commemorates fifty years, the Curated Programme reflects on universal themes that rang true at the founding of the Festival and all subsequent editions, and interrogates the urgency of distinct challenges particular to the here and now.

What started as a showcase of some 60 works in an attempt to preserve English culture and 1820 Settler heritage during the depths of apartheid, has transformed into South Africa’s longest-running and most diverse arts festival, featuring works across language and genre that attract an increasingly diverse South African and international audience.

Selected through a process of application, and lengthy curatorial panel review, the National Arts Festival’s Curated Programme is a creative litmus test of society and a reflection of the artists’ lens on South Africa and the world. The 2024 Curated Programme is a dialogue of ideas in a restless era as world orders shift, violence escalates and uncertainty prevails on the cusp of a post-truth world.

Says Artistic Director Rucera Seethal, “To encompass all that the Festival could and has ever been in a landmark year such as this is an overwhelming task and belies the Festival’s role in breaking out new work and reimagining older ones. So in creating this programme, we have played with the juxtaposition of old and new and the emergence of ambitious ideas that bring the Festival into a new era of cross-border and international collaboration.”

Image Supplied: Talking Loud Shalom Mushwana and Callan Grecia 7

Some of the highlights from the Curated Programme include the world premiere of Third World Bunfight’s The Stranger, the cutting-edge new work 1789 by Sibikwa Arts Centre, a tribute to artists passed by Mandla Mbothwe and the innovative new works of the Standard Bank Young Artists. Through several visual art exhibitions, the history of the Festival is brought into the conversation, and exciting new projects that connect artists and creators from Africa take the Festival into a new direction for the future.

More about the 2024 Curated Programme

Justice and hope

Questions and theories about justice, both environmental and social, feature prominently in this year’s programme. Empatheatre employs a research-based methodology for creating works that tackle complexity. They celebrate their tenth anniversary with a retrospective of two works at the Festival. Lalela uLwandle (featuring Alison Cassels, Mpume Mthombeni and Rory Boothwhich ) has travelled internationally and tackles issues of justice for those who live with and from the ocean and The Last Country (cast includes Mpume Mthombeni, Philisiwe Twijnstra, Nompilo Maphumulo and Zintle Bobi), which explores the stories of women migrants hailing from the DRC, Zimbabwe, Somalia and rural KwaZulu-Natal.

Image Supplied: Mattering_ 50 Years of The National Arts Festival

Third World Bunfight premieres their new work, The Stranger; a meditative, ritualistic performance work based on the myth of Orpheus, continuing Brett Bailey’s exploration of the intersections between ancient myth and contemporary realities. Set in a dystopian contemporary town: humdrum, grinding, materialistic and bigoted, a gifted musician arrives from across the border or from another world. His music is transformational and reveals an underlying harmony in the universe. Written, created, directed and designed by Bailey, it features musical direction by Nkosenathi Koela.

Grappling with the ideologies of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, Sibikwa Arts Centre’s 1789 is a cutting-edge new work bravely transforming the theatre space, breaking the stage and audience divide. Featuring 18th-century French-styled costumes and Parisian scenography, designed by Wilhelm Disbergen, the production stays true to the original work of commentary and satire developed by Ariane Mnouchkine and the Théâtre du Soleil in the early 1970s (around the time of the birth of the NAF). It is co-directed by acclaimed theatre-makers Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba and supported by The French Institute of South Africa.

Ghostprints for the Abyssal Plains / The Abyssal Zone is a visual artwork by Christine Dixie, with sound installation by Corinne Cooper, that will reside in the depths of the Monument. The installation explores the very dark, deep and silent Abyssal zone and its glittering minerals – needed for batteries, wind turbines and electric vehicles.

Further explorations of, and within, the environment, run through Nature is Louder – Street Art Intervention which activates Makhanda’s public spaces with a collaborative, site-specific and large-scale public mural by a dynamic crew of Makhanda-based artists led by Mook Lion.

Crashing through the barriers of time and space, Darkroom Contemporary’s dance work ULTRA is an energetic current of possibility and a prompt to push boundaries.

African Storytelling Resonance

As the Festival moves into the next 50 years, it increases its focus on work from, and in collaboration with, countries on the Continent. This broader position steps towards future African exchange and collaboration, and the role of the Festival as an international window on African creativity. At the same time, a strong emergence of African narrative and indigenous knowledge systems informs works that offer new perspectives and forms.

Diartskonageng brings its fresh take on theatricality and celebrates African aesthetics. The Red on the Rainbow; an ensemble piece with five actors supported by a trumpeter and percussionist duo, Sydney Mavundla and Volley Nchabeleng, was written and directed by 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre, Monageng “Vice” Motshabi, and choreographed by the late Mandla Mngevu, as an experiment with ways of using multiple points of view storytelling, movement and soundscape.

Image Supplied: Two Sides of Skollie’s Coin _ SBYA Lorin Sookool 2

Sketch Productions’ theatre piece 1 yard, 7 shacks is a kwai-hip-hop theatre performance piece. Written and directed by Paul Noko Maja, with music composition by Anele “Naythebae” Zondo, the piece looks at the linguistic and cultural influence of isicamtho.

Circus Zambia is at the Festival with Afronauts, the captivating story of the visionary individuals who aspired to create a utopian Zambia characterised by freedom, dreams of great achievement, nationhood and humanity in the 1960s. This circus piece is written and directed by Gift Chansa and Adam McGuigan.

Playwright and director Napo Masheane wanders into myth and history with the story of Morena Moshoeshoe in Thaba Bosiu – The Musical from The Performing Arts Centre of the Free State (PACOFS). Thaba-Bosiu showcases the magnificence of the Basotho clan and what it means to be a Mosotho. The production teaches about the Basotho culture and customs through music, dance, indigenous games, and totems of the Basotho nation through a form of a musical. The piece is choreographed by Sello Pesa.

Pesa brings his work to the Festival too. Titled Nokeng ya Kubetu, this piece was ruminating in Pesa’s head for several years after the passing of his father who had never seen him perform. The play asks questions of identity, heritage and tradition and how they can be resolved and understood in changing times.

Continental Connections

The 50th year will also mark the launch of the groundbreaking multi-national dance development programme Third Space, which sees the National Arts Festival partner with long-term collaborators The French Institute of South Africa (IFAS) and The French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs producing three new dance works. Renowned choreographers and scenographers have been invited from South Africa, Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania to work with dancers from three local community arts centres (Gompo Arts Centre, Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative and Rosemore Community Collective) to produce an original dance work that will premiere in their host communities before travelling to the National Arts Festival in June 2024.

Image Supplied: Christine Dixie

A group of Internationally established African Festival and Theatre Directors have been invited to attend the National Arts Festival, with the express intention of seeing new work, meeting artists, developing together and sharing programmes in the future.

History, nostalgia and retrospection

As the Festival marks fifty years there are various reflections on its history and context.

After the cathartic return of Gregory Maqoma’s EXIT/EXIST in 2023, Vuyani Dance will bring their epic work Cion: Requiem of Ravel’s Boléro to the stages of the NAF in 2024. The work draws inspiration from the Zakes Mda novel of the same name and is, in Maqoma’s words, “a lament, a requiem required to awaken a part of us, the connection to the departed souls.”

Mandla Mbothwe also pays homage to the departed with a tribute to the lives of the South African artists we have lost (2020-2024) in his new work Izandi zemilambo yabo kuthi/ the sounds of their rivers in us commissioned by the Festival to commemorate the 50th anniversary. An installation with sonic activations, the work creates a ritualistic place where past and present converge, brought to life as a sanctuary, reflection and to honour memory and legacy.

In the visual art exhibition Mattering: 50 Years of The National Arts Festival, curators Raphaela Linders and Viwe Madinda, working with writer Robyn Perros, lift archival fragments from each of the Festival’s five decades of archives. Here, history is not linear nor are written records the only orators, but rather the artworks, architecture, elements, objects, and our bodies themselves are co-constructors of the festival’s intertwined ever-evolving narrative.

Image Supplied

Rhodes University’s exhibit In conversation: Four Decades of Artworks by Current and Former Staff of the Rhodes University Fine Art Department draws primarily from Rhodes University’s extensive art collection to map four decades of artworks produced by full-time and contract teaching staff of the RU Fine Art Department. Conceptualised to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Rhodes University, the exhibition is curated by Dominic Thorburn, Maureen de Jager and Robyn Munnick on behalf of the RU Visual Representation, Arts and Culture Committee (VRACC), and with support from the RU Office of Equity and Institutional Culture.

In the reflective dance piece Sometimes I have to lean in… Alan Parker and Gerard Bester reminisce, alongside more poignant interrogations, about what the passing of time means for artists, performers, and indeed, festivals, as we influence, support, encourage, knockdown and ultimately, transform each other.

Reflecting on the life of the late playwright Can Themba in this, his centenary year, writer Dr Siphiwo Mahala, brings the life and times of this famous South African to the stage in the play The House of Truth, directed by award-winning director, Siphenathi Siqwayi. The play explores the colourful life of the acclaimed Sophiatown educator, poet, and editor.

Spirit, Ritual and Celebration

The six 2023 Standard Bank Young Artists will present their new works at the 50th Festival. Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre, MoMo Matsunyane, takes the role of writer and director to explore themes of manipulation and deceit when a charming new priest offers a better life to an impoverished community in her work Ka Lebitso La Moya. Standard Bank Young Artist for Performance Art, Angel Ho, will take audiences through a multi-sensory experience showcasing dance, music, costume and video all rooted in queer ideology in Dis MY KANT, co-written and co-produced by Kirsten Poking and featuring Drag King – Casual Harry.

Image Supplied: AFRONAUTS Circus Zambia 5. Credit: Adam Mcguigan

Standard Bank Young Artist for Dance, Lorin Sookool, will present through a workshop-based process her vision of collaboration with a group of dancers as well as presenting a solo piece. The double bill’s working title is Two Sides of a Skollies Coin. Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, Darren English, will present two performances; The Darren English Quintet 1 and 2; a presentation of original materials including collaborations with local and international musicians.

Wegswysers duur die Blinkuur is the title of the work by Stephané Conradie, Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art. The body of work is situated in the tensions and beauty in intergenerational rituals and practices.

In Nomthandazo: amahubo, Zoë Modiga (2023 Standard Bank Young Artist for Music) offers a hymnbook that sets the landscape as a portal to the spirit world. A sacral, ceremonious, cinematic work that brings us towards our inner, godlike selves.

Generational bridges

The Curated Music Programme brings a diverse collection of sounds and experiences. For the big weekend acts, a new generation of musical talents feature on the programme with Zoë Modiga leading the charge, and the gentle giant of the music industry Sipho ‘Hotstix’ Mabuse returning to the Festival at 72. Charismatic crowd-pleaser Mandisi Dyantyis is a recurring performer on the stages of NAF, this year with an 8-piece band.

Emerging curators Shalom Mushwana and Callan Grecia present the group show Talking Loud, which sees young artists commenting on the perceptions and expectations of their generation. Makhanda’s celebrated International Library of African Music (ILAM) will present a focus on African Music as well as a Joza Hip Hop project.

Image Supplied: Mandisi Dyantyis

This year the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality supports the South African National Jazz Orchestra in partnership with Mandela Bay Theatre Complex. This is in addition to the Dakawa Jazz Programme, an Eastern Cape-focused music programme supported by the Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture. The Makhanda Jazz Festival, incorporating the National Youth Jazz Festival, runs for a period within the Festival, and once again features South African greats and newbies.

The full Festival programme is live and open for booking at

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