NO-ONE at the Platteland Preview festival in Smithfield this year will easily forget the opening night. Church bells ringing across the veld, marimba players regaling us with great jazz outside a fabulous venue, new and old friends, good food and drink. And then the intriguing opening play – actor David Butler as Danie de Bruin in poet-playwright Chris Mann’s new one-hander.
The Ballad of Dirk de Bruin has now moved to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown where it’s part of the fringe programme. But it’s also listed as a component of SpiritFest – a section of the festival subtitled, ‘Celebration of the arts in the context of faith’. That’s because Mann has cast de Bruin as an Everyman figure, battling with his conscience and what he believes is right.
Like most of us de Bruin has come up against corruption and abuse of power at various stages in his life and in the opening scene of the play he waits to face the consequences of blowing the whistle on corruption that he feels he cannot ignore.
Afterwards I kept thinking about the play – the response of our local audience and how the work is likely to be received in Grahamstown. And I wondered what else would be on offer there that addresses contemporary South African issues of human rights, abuse of power, corruption and so on.
But as the weekend progressed those thoughts were pushed aside because of the pressures of festival organisation: our ticket sales doubled this year and our priority was to keep guests and performers happy.
As with most other arts initiatives funding is a big challenge. This year for the first time we cracked a grant from the Arts and Culture Trust – a huge achievement.
But we also need our municipal structures on board if we are to benefit the whole community in the way we’d like. So you can imagine our delight when the mayor of the local municipality sent us a letter of support.
She wished us well and said she hoped development and funding agencies would see the value of such an event with its capacity to create growth opportunities for the communities of our area. She also attended three festival events and showed that hers is not just paper support.
Our district municipality – a bigger, wealthier and more influential layer of local government – also said they were keen to establish links, and delegated two officials to attend the festival and a special civic dinner as our guests. They arrived in a smart black luxury vehicle and obviously enjoyed the shows for which they had complimentary tickets, but by the time they arrived for the official dinner they were so drunk and disorderly that we had to stop them coming in.
Festivals can be hugely important for the development of communities. The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown contributes about R90-million every year to that city’s GDP and an estimated R350-million to the provincial and local economy.
This year, the 40th anniversary of the festival in Grahamstown, the festival hosts ambassadors, consul generals and high commissioners from an amazing total of 18 countries, all of them looking for ways to foster links as well as growth in and around that city. Suppose one of them had been a guest at our dinner in Smithfield, invited to meet local officials about development opportunities in our struggling and neglected region. What a lost chance that would have been.
It was bad enough however: a top arts director who is also an influential figure in the national arts scene had been invited. He is a strong supporter of our venture and was to have sat with the officials from the district municipality over dinner to discuss involvement of their structure in our festival, explain his dreams for the way forward and plan a meeting with them for next month. Instead we lost out and there was embarrassment all round.
Afterwards as I considered how to respond I realised this was a Dirk de Bruin moment. It’s surely right that the senior officials they were supposed to represent know that these men disgraced themselves and wasted tax payers’ money by being unable to carry out the public function for which they had been sent to our town.
On the other hand many people would warn that such a complaint could well put future relations between the particular district council and our festival at risk.
Expedient silence or integrity? For Dirk de Bruin the choice would be clear.