As the National Arts Festival unfolds in Grahamstown, the spectre of Nelson Mandela’s ailing health occupies the small old settler town like the proverbial elephant in the room.
As hippie types in weird woollen garb, along with cool and critical cultural tourist of various forms, converge on the Eastern Cape town for the annual affair, the nation is gasping over the declining health of its beloved former president.
The jubilant chatter indulged in between art exhibitions, theatre plays and other shows is often peppered with cautious inquiries on the latest news from “Madiba watch”.
The nervous curiosity over Madiba’s health is also dogged by an uneasy desire to forget, if only for a while, about all things bad in the world. It’s as if the terror of his mortality must be ignored for the arts and culture jamboree to happen with the pretence of normality. This is exacerbated by rumours that suggested the festival might be cancelled on account of the ailing former president’s deteriorating condition.
The bubble of willed ignorance pops now and then thanks to plays like Zakes Mda’s The Madonna of Excelsior and John Kani’s The Island, which make reference to Mandela in their text.
The town is forced to remember that, as coffee and cake are served at various restaurants and eateries, the former president lies in a hospital still fighting for his life.