Decaying Grahamstown ‘could lose Arts Festival’

The popular Village Green at the National Arts Festival
The popular Village Green at the National Arts Festival
Image: Supplied to DispatchLIVE

It is becoming increasingly difficult to justify the world-renowned National Arts Festival remaining in a decaying Grahamstown.

The warning came yesterday from festival chief executive Tony Lankester during a meeting with Cooperative Governance Minister Zweli Mkhize in the rundown Eastern Cape city.

Lankaster’s warning was echoed by dismayed business, education and community leaders, who all called for the crumbling Makana municipality’s financial, technical and service delivery woes to be addressed.

Mkhize and his delegation met with business, political, educational and community leaders in Grahamstown yesterday to ascertain for himself how things stood in the municipality.

The minister said he had appointed a large team consisting of the top management and technical leadership in his department to assist a turnaround in the dysfunctional and broke municipality.

“This team will ensure critical issues are dealt with and vacancies, including that of municipal manager, are filled. Don’t be discouraged that previous interventions have not worked out. There is enough goodwill to take this forward. We are here to give you the necessary support,” Mkhize said.

But he warned that there was no magical pot of money to bail out the municipality which, he said, needed to first get the basics right.

He was told in no uncertain terms how the collapse in service delivery, the potholed roads and the frequent electricity and water outages in the city were destroying investor confidence, business opportunities and employment.

Lankester said the impact rippled down to the level of everything done in the city and it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to justify why the National Arts Festival should remain in Grahamstown, which has hosted it for 44 years.

“When I am asked [(if it is staying in Grahamstown] I reply: ‘We will stay in Grahamstown as long as it is capable of hosting us’. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify.”

The National Arts Festival’s importance as a revenue generator was underscored by a Rhodes University economic impact study in 2013 which put the value of the contribution of the festival to the Eastern Cape at R340-million, with Grahamstown attracting R90-million of that.

Attendance numbers for the festival last year dropped by 10.2% to 202 643 from the 227 524 people who attended in 2016, but Lankester said at the time that ticket sales had been “solid and consistent” despite tough economic times and had only dipped by 5%.

The managing director of one of Grahamstown’s biggest employers, the Carara Argos Processing plant, Mike Duxbury, said the company had spent millions of rands on dealing with the consequences of the collapse of municipal ser vices.

He said the company, which is a major exporter of pickled products, had to install its own water-treatment facility to deal with the substandard municipal water quality, buy its own generators to deal with electricity outages, develop extraordinary water-storage measures to deal with water outages, and buy its own tractor and skips to remove rubbish.

The company also assisted the surrounding community by cleaning up informal dumpsites, mowed and cleaned its own verges and repaired surrounding potholed roads.

“How can we convince customers we operate to world standards and are able to supply volumes of export quality product if we are surrounded by an unsightly mess?” he asked.

Representatives of the Grahamstown Residents’ Association , Grahamstown Business Forum, Rhodes University and all the private schools said they wanted to work with the Makana municipality to turn things around.

Business forum chair Richard Gaybba said that the municipality was strategically positioned between two major metros, was home to Rhodes University, some of the best government and private schools on the continent, the national arts and other festivals, and the seat of the high court in the province.

Mkhize later told the Daily Dispatch that his team would look at the constraints faced by the municipality and identify solutions and “quick wins”. – Additional reporting by Athena O’Reilly