Festivals have been globally one of sector most affected by Covid-19. In particular, in South Africa (SA), from early exploration of the immediate impact we are aware that one major festival has not run this year (Kelin Karoo Nationale Kustefees) and the National Arts Festival (the oldest and largest festival in the country) will be run as an online event – but with very little time for planning and response to the changing situation of Covid-19 globally. Festivals are a vital sector of the cultural and economic development of SA. In economic terms, they contribute to livelihoods and local economic development but more importantly, they play a crucial role in facilitating community exchanges, cultural expression and opening culture to new audiences every year. A socio-economic impact study of the National Arts Festival, for example, showed that it contributed R86m to the local economy, and that 81% of survey participants agreed or strongly agreed that the Festival was important in building social cohesion. A recent national mapping study of the South African creative economy showed that “Performance and Celebration” (which includes festivals) grew at a faster annual rate (3.4%) than the rest of the economy (1.1.%).
The uncertainty about what kind of festivals will be possible in the age of Covid-19 (during, immediately after or in connection with the possibility of on-going co-existence with the virus) in SA is fragmenting the sector and its potential to survive. Early results from a survey on the impact of Covid-19 on creative economy workers show that they are extremely vulnerable, especially those operating in the informal sector and freelancers. These groups are also less knowledgeable about government support being offered to the sector and a lower proportion of them qualify for it.
This research will therefore provide urgent input and direction for thinking about immediate changes and long-term possibilities for the future of festivals during the ongoing period in which festivals will have to co-exist with the threat of the virus. Covid-19 is having a terrible impact on SA, the worst affected country in the continent from a public health perspective. However, the virus will also have long term economic impacts. It may generate new forms of social isolation and economic exclusion within a country which has struggled to build bridges between its many populations since the end of apartheid. Festivals have played an essential role in the recognition and promotion of cultural differences and heritage in SA. They allow for communities (of specific language or cultures) to come together to celebrate their heritage. For cultural producers, they also support livelihoods and income generation in those places (through visitors or tourism economies. For audiences, they have promoted cross-cultural appreciation, and new cultural opportunities for populations who otherwise experience geographic and socio-economic exclusions.