Grahamstown East and the performance of poverty

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Every year, cries of exclusion from the Festival do their rounds, although little ever seems to be done to address the issue. This year at Fingo Festival, the dialogue Business Beyond Festival was a hard-hitting response to residents’ feelings of exclusion from the city’s economy.

Though Grahamstown attracts a large number of tourists throughout the year, more so during the National Arts Festival, residents in  and other eastern areas say they do not benefit as much as they could. In the dialogue, residents voiced concerns around the representation of the east side of Grahamstown is often limited to what they call performances of poverty.

Dr Nomalanga Mkhize, facilitator of the dialogue said, “We need to stop just singing and dancing when tourists come and find other ways to create business opportunities whilst also liberating ourselves. Yes, we will still sing and dance, when we want to and in our own spaces because we love it, but now it is time to move into different things.” A further point of concern is tourists’ singular interest in the tavern culture of townships. Various residents say that many who visit have a limited understanding of the history and other points of interest of the areas.

One participant explained how many do not know of the importance of said monumental sites such as the Lobengula Graves, while another reminded the audience of The Saint Phillips Anglican church which hosted figures like Biko during apartheid. The rich ballroom dancing history in Grahamstown which fuelled interest in the rest of the Eastern Cape was yet another bit of history often left out of Grahamstown’s history books. Susan Waugh, director of Makana Tourism said, “People do want to get the authentic food, beer and tavern experience of this side of Grahamstown, but we also want to create deeper, alternative tour routes that come here.”

Waugh spoke of the need to get people working long term and not only during Festival, as well as a need for people in Grahamstown to work together more effectively. Njabulo Zwane, a Rhodes University student, emphasised that the deep-seated colonial issues of Grahamstown need to be addressed as a priority. “Grahamstown is a colonial town built on structural racism that doesn’t want to see black people becoming independent. The Fingo Festival is something that tries to break the cycle of poverty, but why is it that we have to perform our poverty to white people in order for them to come here for business?” He argued that this takes away from the dignity of the black person. “We need to have our own place in the community.

Township tourism is violent.” Residents of the eastern areas said there needs to be a shift in township tourism so that it goes further toward liberating black individuals. Waugh suggested possible meetings between Makana Tourism and the residents from the east side so that possible solutions can be implemented.

The dialogue wrapped up with each person in the room sharing the skills they have to offer to the community. These included knitting, woodworking, puppeteering, braiding, carpentry and plastering.

By Hlumela Dyantyi

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