The Virtual National Arts Festival

The National Arts Festival, the jewel of the Eastern Cape, found itself this year shifting gears to render the desires of art and jazz lovers digitally, instead of the physical 11-day activation that saw the festival contribute in 2018 R377 million towards the GDP of the province and the City of Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) respectively. The now Virtual National Arts Festival 2020, embraced digital and presented a bumper-packed 11 days of arts, culture and music, literally to a global audience.

A screen grab from the opening press conference of the 2020 Virtual National Arts Festival

How it worked

The programme consisted of the festivals standard Daily Programme, with new shows being added on each day. There was a virtual Fringe (vFringe) section for artists to stage their works and sell individual tickets, with vFringe galleries for online art and Virtual Green for crafters and traders to showcase and sell their wares. Standard Bank’s Jazz Festival and Creativate Digital Art Festival were both integrated into the Daily Programme.

Festival patrons were holistically considered, including the convenience of purchasing day passes online to being able to view shows on demand or schedule reminders to view once-off LIVE performances. The festival organisers went as far as ensuring that those who bought tickets were able to watch shows on multiple devices and even repeat their favourites during the allocated period valid with pass purchases.

“We believe that the Provincial Government’s first-ever Virtual National Arts Festival has certainly presented an opportunity for our creatives, the artists and the crafters to engage on a larger platform,” cited the Eastern Cape MEC for Sport, Recreation, Arts & Culture, Ms Fezeka Nkomonye-Bayeni. “This financial year we injected R13 million to ensure that our local artists, creatives and designers were given an opportunity to showcase their talents.”

At the opening press conference the festival’s long-standing partner, Standard Bank’s Group CMO, Mr Thulani Sibeko congratulated the National Arts Festival’s leadership and team for taking the uncharted path of presenting a virtual Festival on such a massive scale. “This is a wonderful representation of Standard Bank’s new brand promise and pay off line which says ‘It can be’,” he said. “I would love to say BRAVO! to the artists, producers, the director and the technical teams for making the virtual NAF possible. You have risen to an unprecedented challenge.”


Prior to the world having to consider a new norm, the National Arts Festival had appointed a new CEO in December of 2019. Ms Monica Newton stepped into the role of CEO of the National Arts Festival officially, 1 January 2020, taking over the reigns from Tony Lankester, whom the Festival was pleased announce would remain as a board member to facilitate continuity. Ms Newton, among other major career roles, takes this seat as a former CEO of the National Art Council, a statutory body that reports to the Department of Arts and Culture, established to support and develop the arts in South Africa and Head of the Gauteng Department of Sport, recreation, Arts & Culture between August 2017 to November 2019.

“The National Arts Festival makes a major contribution to the arts ecosystem in South Africa, and like all things in the current cultural, economic and social climate, must adapt to prevailing conditions,” remarked Newton. “Ensuring that the Festival and all its activities contribute meaningfully, sustainably and responsibly is of importance.”

The Virtual National Arts Festival 2020 featured an incredible array of creative presentations in its 11 days, captivating imaginations far and wide and bringing to life stories, in stills and motion pictures, that would have otherwise gone unnoticed by the world at large. COVID-19 might have hit our shores as an unprepared-for pandemic, however, it has given humility and humanity and arts and culture another irrepressible reason to forge onward and upward through digitisation.

An image from THLAGO by King Debs, part of the Creativate Digital Arts Festival

If you missed any of the shows, you can visit the official website – – for highlights and more. You can also follow the official National Arts Festival social media channels via Instagram and Twitter.


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