The Grahamstown National Arts Festival

The Grahamstown National Arts Festival in South Africa is the biggest arts festival on the African continent, drawing performers and entertainers from all over the world. The festival has been in existence since 1974 when the student town of Grahamstown hosted the first National Arts Festival. Grahamstown is home to about seventy thousand people (this number triples during festival days) and home to Rhodes University. Situated about 120km north-east of Port Elizabeth, it is home to some the country’s oldest and most prestigious schools.

Grahamstown Festival

For most of the year, Grahamstown is a relatively quiet country town…well, about as quiet as a University town can be. Students from all over South Africa make Grahamstown their home whilst they complete their University degrees. But, once every year in July, the National Arts Festival comes to town and shakes everything up.

The festival is made up of the Main and Fringe programmes, the Main hosting the bigger, more established artists and performers, whilst the Fringe is the place to find up and coming new talent and acts. During festival time, the whole town is geared up for the influx of visitors and it can be hard to find accommodation, especially on weekends. Every church and school hall is utilized to showcase the best of the country’s drama, musical, comedy and artistic talent. The usually quiet High Street becomes a bustling street market of vendors from all over Africa selling handmade curios and art. Traders and artists from Senegal, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and many other African countries migrate south for the festival, loading their vehicles with their precious wares.

Festival business

Although there isn’t a meter of space anywhere in the town that isn’t occupied by a small entrepreneur, the Transnet Village Green market is definitely the place to be if you’re looking for a day of shopping and bargain hunting. The market is open every day during the festival from 9am to 5pm and hosts a variety of nearly 800 stalls or shops. It’s quite easy to spend an entire day at this market, meandering through the maze of stalls. There’s a fantastic selection of local handmade wares, including clothing, jewelry, leather goods….even cacti ! Should the shopping prove too tiring for you, there is also a beer garden and wide variety of food stalls where you can refuel. Another great attraction is the stage in the center of the market. Each day, performers from various shows featured on the Fringe festival, come out to give festival goers or “festinos” a taste of what their show has to offer. So, if you can’t make up your mind what to go and see, it can be very helpful to catch some of the teaser shows at the Village Green.

traders doing business

For 11 days in July every year, Grahamstown is host to the National Arts Festival and becomes a hive of activity with festival goers and traders coming from all over the country to participate. If you are looking for a taste of South African culture, or feel the need to spend the day shopping on the markets filled with unique items, the Grahamstown festival is not to be missed 🙂