Festival merry-go-round

By A.B. Gondwe


South Africa’s daily news headlines are enough to make anyone feel depressed. But they hide an essential truth about this country and its people: despite so much bad news, South Africans are really a jolly, fun-loving nation in a country blessed with a colourful and diverse abundance of festivals, carnivals and fun celebrations of every description.


In fact, the country may have more festivals than most comparable other countries. South Africans seem to need little or no excuse to let their hair down and party, celebrating everything from olives and cherries, to the start of the fishing season in Cape Town, the arts, prickly pears, oysters, witblits, whales, crayfish, science, wildlife, wine, jazz and even the attempted blowing up of the British parliament in 1605. Do you get the idea?


And as a tourist attraction they draw fun-loving people from all over the world.


Cape Town Minstrel Carnival


Probably the oldest festival or carnival, and one of the most popular, that still takes place each year with a colourful explosion of marching bands and choirs, troops of marchers and dancers, and colourful costumes and makeup through the city streets, is Cape Town’s Minstrel Carnival. It is also known variously as the Coon Carnival (used not in a derogatory sense, although these days the term ‘minstrel’ is preferred) and, in Afrikaans, the Kaapse Klopse (the more original or traditional name). This joyous celebration – with troops competing fiercely for top honours – starts with a night-time street parade on New Year’s Eve, followed by a mass event at Green Point Stadium on Tweede Nuwejaar (second New Year, or 2nd January).


The carnival is said to have originated with slaves being given time off by their masters to celebrate New Year on the 2nd January each year. It later gained further momentum when former slaves celebrated the official end of slavery in December 1834 with street parades, bonfires and fireworks. Its further development was influenced by American minstrels who regularly visited the Cape, hence the similarity in costumes and makeup.


Today locals, joined by visitors from all over the world, can join in the celebration with their beloved minstrels each year in what has become a multi-million rand extravaganza, and a truly original Cape Town event as much part of the Mother City as Table Mountain.


There are far too many organised festivities in South Africa to list them all here. But the list that follows will give our readers some idea of all the fun they can choose from during the year, each year.


National Arts Festival, Grahamstown – June/July


This is the oldest – dating back to 1974 – and biggest arts and culture festival in South Africa and on the African continent. It has become something of an annual pilgrimage for many South Africans, and for visitors from elsewhere in Africa and further abroad. For ten days the streets, public spaces and buildings of Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape are turned over to the festive crowds and the almost 500 drama, dance, theatre, comedy, opera, and music productions, as well as student theatre, visual art exhibitions, film shows, street theatre, lectures, debates and discussions, workshops, craft fair and a children’s arts festival. Guided tours of the city and surrounding historic places are also available. The jazz productions are a big favourite.


Cherry Festival, Ficksburg – November


Held each year in Ficksburg in the eastern Free State – claimed by locals to be the cherry capital of the world – this festival has been held continuously since 1969, attracting over 20,000 visitors each year. The town is situated on the banks of the Caledon River in the foothills of the Imperani Mountain, right next to Lesotho. Incorporated in the festival is a jazz festival, while visitors can sample the cherries and other produce of the district, cruise on Africa’s only floating cigar lounge, tour the marvellous old sandstone buildings of the town, sample delicious locally made chocolate, or visit the biggest collection of narrow-gauge steam train engines, vintage tractors, classic cars and military vehicles in the world. (Also see our Hidden Gems section in this edition.)


Cape Town International Jazz Festival – April


The fourth largest jazz festival in the world, and billed as the ‘grandest gathering’  in Africa, the annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival started life in 2000 as the Cape Town North Sea Jazz Festival due to its association with the North Sea Festival in the Netherlands. After 2005 its name changed to the Cape Town International Jazz Festival after the organisers’ partnership with the North Sea festival ended. Although it is distinctly African in character, jazz greats from all over the world perform here. The festival usually has 5 stages with more than 40 artists performing over 2 nights and the performing musicians are split 50/50 between South African artists and international artists. More than 37,000 music lovers annually attend the festival which is now held in the Cape Town International Conference Centre on the city’s Foreshore. Among the many notable music legends who have performed at the festival are Miriam Makeba, Freddy Cole, TKZee, Hugh Masekela, Freshlyground, Herbie Hancock, Lenny White, Paul Hanmer, Ravi Coltrane, Vusi Mahlasela, Buena Vista Social Club, and many, many more.


Klein Karoo National Arts Festival, Oudtshoorn – April


Originally established as an Afrikaans alternative to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, the Klein Karoo festival, abbreviated to KKNK, has mushroomed into an all-inclusive festival for all South Africans, but still retains a strong focus on Afrikaans arts and culture. It is arguably the country’s second biggest such festival after Grahamstown. Every year at festival time the small Karoo town of Oudtshoorn in the Southern Cape, also known as the ostrich capital of the world, is jam-packed with people from all over the country and further afield who come to enjoy the theatre, music, dance and visual arts productions, as well as literary and art discussions, a variety of debates involving well-known personalities, story-telling, markets and crafts stalls, and a wide offering of food and beverage delights. For the week-long duration the festival publishes its own daily newspaper, a  variety of tours and a fringe festival are offered, and the Absa banking group awards what is known as ‘Karoo Oscars’ and cash prizes for the best work at the festival.


Wacky Wine Weekend, Robertson – June


Over 50 of the Western Cape’s best winemakers make their famous wines available at this festival for serious and not-so-serious wine tasters. Plenty of cheeses are also made available, as well as many other fun activities. But the main focus is wine in all its wonderful varieties. Being a major wine-producing region, there are of course a number of other popular wine festivals held around the Western Cape and its renowned Wine Routes each year.


Splashy Fen Music Festival, Underberg – March/April


Each year over the Easter Weekend thousands of people from old to young and even entire families head to a quiet farm at rural Underberg in the foothills of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal. The attraction – almost with cult status – is four days of some of the best rock and pop music in Africa. The festival has been likened to the UK’s famous Glastonbury festival and is the oldest and biggest of its kind in South Africa – or probably in all of Africa – having been around since 1990. Fans pitch their tents across the farm, which can be quite muddy and reminiscent of the rain and mud soaked famous 1969 Woodstock music festival in the US. For the fussy there are plenty of guest houses around. Festivalgoers have a choice of three stages, food stalls and a well-supported beer garden, while plenty of other action is on hand too. Among the top acts that have performed here are Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Springbok Nude Girls, The Parlotones and Just Jinger, to name but a few.


Hermanus Whale Festival – September


Each year, as large pods of Southern Right whales arrive in the calm waters of Walker Bay at the Western Cape town of Hermanus to mate and calve, people from all over gather here for a festival in honour of the sea’s largest, most peaceful and graceful mammal – put that in your pipes and smoke it, Japanese whalers. The festival is billed as the only ‘enviro-arts festival’ in Africa and also includes music and other performing arts, comedians, a variety of street markets, and famous sports celebrities who endorse the event. But the stars of the festival are undoubtedly the whales that can be watched from lookout points, the old harbour (now a museum), and even from a restaurant set in a cave beside the sea where the whales gently roll and blow literally just meters away from your table. Numerous other activities can also be enjoyed in and around the town, while accommodation, restaurants and pubs are plentiful.


Oppikoppi Bushveld Music Festival, a farm near Northam, Limpopo – August


Probably vying with the Splashy Fen festival for the title of biggest and oldest rock music festival in Africa, the first-ever gathering of bands at Oppikoppi took place in May 1994. It was staged in a small bar for around 400 people, with Afrikaans alternative rock legends like Valiant Swart and Koos Kombuis thumping their guitars while copious supplies of Klipdrif and Coke and Black Labels went down. Today the festival boasts 7 fixed stages, some 160 local and international music sets and around 20,000 foot stomping fans each year. A variety of other offerings include a comedy tent, a chill lounge, a couch competition, naked run, ‘red frogs’ (medical, water and food attendants), lots of food and drink, the tranquil, although shattered, Bushveld surroundings, and unique ‘tent hotels’ for those in need of some sleep. It doesn’t get wilder or more raucous than that!


Guy Fawkes Fireworks Display, Table View beach, Cape Town – November


Just to underscore the fact that South Africans don’t need much of an excuse to stage a festival and have fun, each year they celebrate an event that has absolutely nothing to do with this country – the commemoration of Guy Fawkes and his plot to blow up the British parliament in 1605. Fawkes and associates planned what was known as the Gunpowder Plot, but were caught before they could carry it out. After being tortured to make a confession, the hapless Fawkes fell off the scaffold and broke his neck before they could hang him. The plot is still commemorated in Britain each year…and, strangely, in South Africa too. The most prominent commemoration locally takes place each year on the main beach at Table View, across the bay from Cape Town. Literally thousands of people converge on Table View, causing local residents to batten down and keep their pets inside as they wait for the loud booms and bangs and the splashes and bursts of colour in the night sky of the impressive fireworks display to end. If fireworks is your thing, this is the place to be.


Oyster Festival, Knysna – July


Every year in July the sleepy town of Knysna on the Cape South Coast comes alive for ten days when homage is paid to a tiny, slimy creature wrapped in shells, through anything from oyster tasting to oyster-eating competitions, oyster braais (barbecues) and about 100 other events, including the Knysna Marathon (run without the little molluscans) and a cycle tour.


Olive Festival, Prince Albert – May


Each year the residents of Prince Albert, a Karoo village at the foot of the Swartberg mountain range, celebrate their harvest of olives from the fertile valley with a stylish food festival complemented with a variety of arts, cultural and fun activities. The gourmet offerings naturally include olives in every possible combination – olive oils, olive paste, olive ciabatta, pickled olives, olive breads and whatever can be cooked up with olives. But plenty of other mouth-watering food treats are also on offer, such as a variety of cheeses, figs, dried fruits, baked goodies and much more. Included in the fun is live music and a midnight ghost-walk tour of the town. If you miss this one, there is always another olive festival held in the Boland town of Riebeeck Kasteel, an hour-and-a-half from Cape Town at around the same time.


Dance Umbrella, Johannesburg – February/March


Every year for the past 29 years this dance forum funded by the National Arts Council and various government departments has delighted crowds in Johannesburg. It is a festival showcasing the work of contemporary choreography and dance, presenting the work of more than 50 choreographers from Johannesburg, Cape Town, Mpumalanga, Madagascar, KwaZulu-Natal and Mozambique, among others. These range from community-based dance troupes to international companies, and it has been a launching pad to international careers for many South African choreographers.


Have fun and let your hair down!



Many more festivals


If the above are not enough to satisfy anyone’s appetite for festivals and carnivals, you can still also consider:

  • the Prickly Pear Festival held in February/Match in Uitenhage (Nelson Mandela Bay Metro);
  • the Up The Creek music festival held on the banks of the Breede River near Swellendam;
  • the Lambert’s Bay Kreef Festival (crayfish/rock lobster) on the West Coast in March;
  • the Rotary River Festival on the banks of the Vaal River in southern Gauteng;
  • the Rand Show over Easter in Johannesburg;
  • the 6-day long Scifest, or National Festival of Science, Engineering and Technology, in Grahamstown in March;
  • the Tonteldoos Country Festival of country music and mampoer held near Dullstroom;
  • the AfrikaBurn event held on a farm in the Tankwa Karoo in April;
  • the Witblits Festival (a home-brewed liquor that was outlawed for many years) at Philippolis in the Free State in April;
  • the Cape Town Pride, Johannesburg Pride and Mother City Queer Project LGBT festivals;
  • the Pink Loerie Mardi Gras held in Knysna in May;
  • the Port and Wine Festival held in Calitzdorp in the Southern Cape;
  • the Dullstroom Winter Festival (Christmas in Winter) that includes fly-fishing events held in July;
  • the Vryfees arts festival in Bloemfontein;
  • the Bushveld Festival held in Lephalele (Ellisras) in the Waterberg region;
  • the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival in Johannesburg;
  • the Hantam Vleisfees, a meat festival in Calvinia, Northern Cape;
  • the Cellar Rats Wine Festival held in Magaliesburg, Gauteng;
  • Arts Alive held in Johannesburg during September;
  • the Aardklop Arts Festival in Pitcherfstroom, North West in September;
  • the Southern Cross Music Festival at Mooi River, KwaZulu-Natal;
  • the Woodstock Music Festival at Hartbeeshoek, North West;
  • the Boertjie Kontreifees, an agricultural and arts festival held in Bultfontein, Free State;
  • the Gariep Kunstefees (arts festival) in Kimberley in September;
  • the Awesome Africa Music Festival at Midmar Dam, KwaZulu-Natal;
  • the Macufe, or 10-day Mangaung African Cultural Festival, in Bloemfontein;
  • the White Mountain Folk Music Festival at Estcourt, KwaZulu-Natal;
  • the Vrede Paddadors, Rooivleis en Kultuurfees (translating as the Peace, Frog Thirst, Red Meat and Culture Festival) at Vrede in the Free State;
  • the Lekkerhoekie Opskop Afrikaans music festival in Centurion, Gauteng in October;
  • the Herman Charles Bosman Weekend held in the Groot Marico, North West celebrating the famous author’s life and work;
  • the Rocking the Daisies Music and Lifestyle Festival held in Darling, Western Cape;
  • the Rustler’s Valley New Year’s Gathering held in Ficksburg, Free State in December;
  • the Earthdance festival in Cape Town; and
  • the Rio Carnival-style Cape Town Festival in March, among many more.