The National Arts Festival: It Changed Me.

by | Jun 29, 2023 | Arts and Culture, Eastern Cape, Music/Festivals | 14 comments

I recently returned from a weekend at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), where I was invited to participate in the Standard Bank Art “Be Part of the Arts” social media campaign. The National Arts Festival (NAF) has been running since 1974 — it was born the same year (and the same month!) as me — and it’s a rite of passage for South Africans who love theatre, music, dance, and art of any kind. People have been raving for years about how fabulous NAF is; I have no idea why I’d never gone before.

NAF attendee in the Monument entryway
An NAF attendee in the entryway to the Monument, where many of the performances and exhibitions take place. I love how the huge glass windows become a raucous collage of show posters.

The tagline for this year’s festival is “It Will Change You”, which seemed rather presumptuous to me at first. I’ve been walking this planet for 49 years and I don’t change easily in a single weekend (I thought).

But as I sat down and started writing this post, I realized the tagline is 100% correct. The National Arts Festival did change me, profoundly. I came away bursting with new thoughts, ideas, inspirations, and realizations about South Africa and humanity more generally. I’m so, so happy I finally went.

Here I am getting changed, literally and figuratively, by these spectacular moving paintings by the 2022 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year for Visual Arts, Lady Skollie. (Photo: Thorsten Deckler)
Legendary Queer Sisters perform in the showcase at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda
The spectacular Legendary Queer Sisters, who I saw perform at the Sundowner Concert (more on that later).
Hanging out at Rhodes Theatre
One of my favorite moments of the weekend: Sitting on the sunny steps of the Rhodes University Theatre, sipping coffee with Thorsten (right), who was killing time sketching before the next show.

NAF started on June 22nd and it’s running until July 2nd. Hopefully some of you are planning to attend the festival this weekend — if so, I’ve got highlights and tips for you. And if you’re not going this year, it’s time to start planning for next year’s 50th-anniversary NAF. I definitely plan to go again.

My Highlights From the National Arts Festival

We were only in Makhanda for 48 hours and didn’t come close to experiencing all the wonders NAF has to offer. But these were the highlights for me:

Highlight #1: The Monument

The 1820 Settlers Monument
View of the Monument just before sunset.

“The Monument”, which is formally called the 1820 Settlers National Monument, evokes a complicated set of emotions. The Monument was built the same year NAF started, in 1974. It was severely damaged by fire in 1994, the year of South African independence, and was rebuilt and re-opened by Nelson Mandela in 1996. It’s a huge, brutalist building, looming over Makhanda in a way that feels imposing from a distance.

The 1820 Settlers Monument in the mist
The Monument viewed from the front porch of our guest house, emerging from the mist.
Thorsten's sketch of Makhanda
Thorsten’s sketch of the same scene.
Thorsten's sketch of the Monument
Thorsten’s sketches capture the outside of the Monument better than my photos do.

But the Monument is the center around which the entire National Arts Festival revolves. Inside the building is a massive atrium that pulses with creative energy and inclusiveness that can’t be seen or felt from the outside. In a distinctly South African fashion, it works.

In the Monument atrium before the Sundowner Concert
The stunning Monument atrium, bathed in light before the Sundowner Concert.

The Monument is beautiful at both sunrise and sunset. At this time of year I recommend walking up (there’s a lovely stone path that starts near the bottom of the hill) at 7:00 a.m., to watch the sun come up at about 7:20.

Sunset at the Monument sundial
Sunset behind the sundial that stands in front of the Monument.
Me after a brisk sunrise walk/climb.

Highlight #2: The Sundowner Concert

The Sundowner Concert, which takes place in the Monument atrium every evening of the festival at 5:00 p.m., is a showcase of various performances happening in the NAF Fringe programme. The Sundowner Concert is such a fun show, it’s free, and it’s a great way to get a feel for upcoming Fringe shows that you might want to book.

Pichi Keane, emcee of the Sundowner Concert
Pichi Keane, charming emcee of the Sundowner Concert.
Everyone sang along to this performance by the Iconic Divas, as Yohan Chun did a rousing rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman”.
Shrek performance at the Sundowner Concert
We loved this Shrek the Musical number so much that we booked tickets and went to the full show the following day.

Highlight #3: Performances/exhibitions highlighting indigenous culture

We saw many amazing performances and exhibitions at NAF. But the shows that we enjoyed the most, and have kept us reflecting for days afterward, were focused on indigenous art and culture.

Thorsten and I agreed that the highlight of the weekend was Aalaapi, a performance by two indigenous women from the Arctic, Niap Saunders and Hannah Tooktoo, living their daily lives inside a house on the stage. I could write an entire blog post about Aalaapi and can’t begin to explain it in a single paragraph. But most people in the audience were crying by the end.

Thorsten's sketch of Aalaapi at the National Arts Festival
Photography was prohibited in most NAF performances. But I love this sketch Thorsten made during the discussion at the end of Aalaapi.

My second highlight was Lady Skollie‘s visual arts show, Groot Gat, inspired by ancient Bushman paintings and the work of a contemporary Bushman artist named Dada. Groot Gat is displayed in a round, cave-like gallery on the bottom floor of the Monument.

Groot Gat exhibition by Lady Skollie at the National Arts Festival
Photos of Groot Gat don’t do it justice.

We also loved the Eastern Cape Ensemble, an epic music and dance performance inspired by Madosini, featuring indigenous art from South Africa’s Eastern Cape. I was blown away by the range of musical instruments in this show, including incredible string instruments that are played by mouth. Sadly I don’t have any images from the Eastern Cape Ensemble but there are some clips in my Instagram reel at the bottom of this post.

We saw so many other cool shows that I don’t have space to write about. Quick shout-outs to the performances by Standard Bank Young Artists of the Year, Msaki and Thami Majela, and the beautiful mixed-media exhibition by Nyaniso Lindi.

Work by Nyaniso Lindi
Work by Nyaniso Lindi.

Highlight #4: The Long Table restaurant

The Long Table is a special restaurant, set up every year specifically for NAF. The vaulted-ceiling room is lit almost entirely by candlelight and filled with long, communal tables. The food is hearty and delicious. (Do not miss the Asian pork belly. Like the rest of NAF, it’s life-changing.) Thorsten and I went to the Long Table both nights — we loved it.

The Long Table restaurant in Makhanda
The Long Table.

Highlight #5: The window seat in our room at Cornerstone Manor

Thorsten and I stayed in a lovely Makhanda guesthouse called Cornerstone Manor, and our room had the most beautiful window seat I’ve ever seen.

Cornerstone Manor room
I had zero time to actually relax in the window seat, obviously, because we were too busy festival-ing. But I loved it, and the guesthouse more generally.
Window seat at Cornerstone Manor
Photo taken purely for the ‘gram.

Highlight #6: The Black Power Station

We stopped at the Black Power Station, in an industrial area just outside of town, right as we were leaving Makhanda. And wow, did we save the best for last. I was enchanted.

The Black Power Station is inside a decommissioned power plant. A group of artists, led by Xolile ‘X’ Madinda, have transformed the plant into a magical arts venue.

The Power Station
The outside of the old power plant.
Side of the power station
The side of the plant. It took us a few minutes to wander around to the back and find the entrance to the Black Power Station.
Inside the Black Power Station
Here’s what we eventually found.
Xolile 'X' Mahinda inside the Black Power Station
X Madinda, founder and CEO of the Black Power Station, in the reading area. This corner is often used for book readings and launches.
Graffiti artist Tolo Likakheswa, a.k.a. fal.kab, was finishing this canvas when we walked in.

Again, the Black Power Station deserves a blog post of its own. I need to go back.

Quick Tips for the National Arts Festival

1) Book accommodation early and book for at least three nights.

Two nights was not enough time to do everything we wanted to do at NAF. I yearned for one more night so we could have two full days at the festival.

2) Dress in layers.

Everyone warned me of how cold it would be in Makhanda. When we got there, I thought they’d been exaggerating as it didn’t feel much different from Joburg. But layers are necessary, especially inside the performance venues, which are mostly unheated and often feel colder than outside. Also, it got colder and damper on our last day and I was glad for the heavy coat I brought.

Heather at the Black Power Station
Showing off my winter fashion at the Black Power Station.

3) Don’t book more than three shows per day and note their locations.

We booked four shows on Saturday and I felt a little stressed rushing between them, especially because a couple of them were across town from each other. When I go to NAF next time, I will book a maximum of three shows a day so I have more time to wander around and be spontaneous. FYI, tickets are very well priced (even free sometimes) and easy to book on the NAF website.

Thanks to Standard Bank Arts, both for inviting me on this life-changing trip and for being a longtime supporter and sponsor of the arts in South Africa. Please “Be Part of the Arts” and follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

For a short video recap of my NAF weekend, check out my reel on Instagram:

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Heather Mason (@2summers)

I wrote this post as part of a paid partnership with Standard Bank Arts. Opinions expressed are my own.


  1. dizzylexa

    Sounds like an action packed 48 hours. We have such amazing talent in this country, not sure it is being tapped into sufficiently other than the once yearly festivals such as this and a few others.

    • 2summers

      Yes, this certainly was a reminder (not that we necessarily needed it!) of how freaking creative South Africans are.

  2. Ms. Nancy Anne McDaniel

    THIS is a keen example of why South Africa is such a great country for culture and the arts! I have heard about the festival for years. SO glad you finally got to go. (The guest house looks delicious). How long is the drive from Joeys?

    • 2summers

      We actually flew to Port Elizabeth and drove from there (which is about 90 minutes). I think the drive from Joburg is about 9 or 10 hours — definitely a two-day journey. I’m thinking of doing a road trip there next year (as it’s my 50th birthday and the festival’s)!

  3. Peggy Laws

    I absolutely LOVE this Festival and will be back next year. Didn’t realise it was their 50th so better book sooner rather than later. I have been going for many years and a lot overseas visitors say it beats Edinburgh Festival hands down. It really is unique. Interestingly, one year, I met some sponsors who were taking some of the Acts to Edinburgh Festival – which was awesome.

    • 2summers

      Yes, I think next year is going to be amazing!

  4. catji

    Awesome, as usual :> So your headscarf was transformed to perfectly match the rock art display. Seriously, that photo is art itself. 😮

    • 2summers

      Yes! Although it’s not even a scarf – that’s my hair 🙂

  5. Barend van der Merwe

    Have never been to Makhanda/Grahamstown myself, let alone their arts festival, but I hope to go one day. You truly have a gift for photographs. Thanks as always for this wonderful post.

    • 2summers

      I hope you make it! Thanks as always for reading, Barend.

  6. Lani

    Looks amazing, and full of color, and art, the best. xo

  7. frankieford

    Never been. Heard about it for years. Now I definitely want to go. Well-deserved sponsorship from Standard Bank – you do a great job of shining a light on interesting places/events in SA.

    • 2summers

      Thank you so much Frankie!


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