Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Tulbagh is a greedy little town

Tulbagh is a dorpie an easy half-hour’s drive from our own pretty little town. It’s probably best known for the earthquake that all but destroyed it in 1969. All the houses in one street, Church Street, were carefully restored following the disaster, and it’s now said to have the largest number of national monuments in one street in South Africa. ‘To take a walk down Church Street is akin to walking through a page in history,’ burbles one of Tulbagh's websites.

If, that is, you’re prepared to fork out R20 for the experience.

On Saturday we loaded up the car with teenagers, all with money burning holes in their pockets, and drove to Tulbagh to take part in their ‘Christmas in Winter’ weekend festival. Clutched in my hot little hand I had the pamphlet that had been distributed far and wide in the weeks leading up to the festival. It boasted, among other things, a Christmas craft market; gluwein and heartwarming drinks; cheese, olives and chocolates; mince pies and Christmas cake; and art exhibitions.

What it didn’t mention is that to gain entrance to Church Street, where all these things were happening, cost R20 per person.

To put this into perspective: there were six of us, so entrance alone to the street (which is, incidentally, a public road) would cost us a total of R120.

To further clarify things: the teens (who between the four of them had R700 to spend – we counted on the way home) wanted to buy handmade clothes, jewellery, trinkets and edible treats. I had about R400 in cash in my purse; my friend A had about R200; all he and I intended to do, really, was wander around and have a look at things, although if anything jumped out at us and screamed ‘Buy me! Buy me!’ well, of course, we would.

But asking visitors to the festival – most of whom had already invested in time and petrol to get there; Tulbagh is over 100km from the nearest city – to pay an entrance fee in order to buy stuff just seemed greedy.

We had a quick discussion about this and all four teens said that no way were they forking out R20 entrance fee (two of them had less than R100 to spend, so that would have been quite a big chunk out of their readies). So, without spending a single cent in Tulbagh, we got back in the car and drove home – bringing back with us a potential R1 300 that we might have splashed out for clothing, jewellery, trinkets and edible treats.

And we weren’t the only people who balked at paying to shop – several other groups who were looking forward to wandering down Church Street and supporting local industry also turned around and left. In fact, I took the title of this post from something someone said as he turned away: ‘What a greedy little town!’

When we got home, I phoned the Tulbagh Tourism office to ask about this entrance fee. What I wanted to know was: why wasn’t it advertised on the flyers that had been distributed before the festival; what does it cover; do the stallholders in Church Street also pay to be there, or do visitors’ entrance fees cover their costs; and what about, say, farm labourers who want to bring their families to the festival and simply can’t afford R20 per person to get in?

Patty, the woman I spoke to, was defensive. ‘It gives you access to the festival for two days,’ she said – which may work for people who actually stay over in Tulbagh and so spend the whole weekend there, but is a bit of an ask for day-visitors. Even R10 entrance, while still pretty bloody cheeky, would have been more reasonable for people who intend to only wander around for a couple of hours.

The entrance fee, said Patty, also covered admission to the three (‘Oh, sorry, two,’ she amended; one was being renovated) museums/art galleries in the street. ‘And how much is their admission fee usually?’ I asked. ‘Seven rand,’ she admitted (so there, all on its own, is a tidy profit for Tulbagh Tourism).

As to the stallholders – yes, they do pay to set up their stalls in Church Street, R350 for the weekend. That covers, said Patty, ‘access to a shower and public toilets’ for the stallholders. They must feel so spoiled.

‘And how about really poor people who want to attend the festival?’ I asked. (Tulbagh is a wine-farming valley; there’s a huge population of farm labourers in the area.)

Patty bristled. ‘The community decided on the entrance fee,’ she said.

‘The community’? I wonder who that would be. I can guarantee that Johannes September, who lives with his wife and three children in a farm cottage and earns a pittance during harvest and scrapes by for the rest of the year on odd-jobs, didn’t have much to do with that particular decision.

‘And where does the entrance fee go?’ I asked. ‘Well, 15 percent of it goes to a local school,’ Patty said. Whoop-de-doo.

As to why the R20 entrance fee wasn’t specified on the pre-publicity, Patty admitted that this may have been ‘an oversight’.

‘Look,’ said Patty finally, clearly tiring of the conversation, ‘we hold our festival in the middle of winter, when nothing else is really happening, so…’

Ooh! So because they’re the only place to go for one weekend in June, they can charge a usurious entrance fee? Isn’t that known as, um, rampant exploitation?

I know comparisons are odious, but please indulge me here. The little town I live in holds two festivals a year. Not only do we involve ‘the community’, but poorer residents are given stalls at knock-down prices and encouraged and helped with production and set-up. We open our entire town to visitors – we wouldn’t dream of charging them to come and support our effort; we’re just grateful they’ve actually taken the time and spent the petrol-money to get here, and we hope that the stallholders will make a big fat packet so they’ll come back next year.

Tulbagh’s greed must have lost their tourism association a big fat packet last weekend, but more to the point, it excluded their own, less affluent community members and diddled their stallholders. So much for Christmas spirit.

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Juno said...

I agree - greedy. In fact, I'm not sure it's legal to close off a street and demand an access fee - isn't it a public right of way? It's akin to setting up a private toll booth outside your house, Mur.

Muriel said...

You're right, Juno, it's not legal. I tried to find someone to speak to about this when we were there, but all the high-ups were busy with other more important things. Although Patty did say, after our slightly combative phone conversation, that she 'appreciated constructive criticism', so perhaps next year they'll get their ducks in a row.

Muriel said...

This has just popped up in my inbox, and is an excellent comparison. Patty pf Tulbagh told me they'd 'researched other festivals', and theirs was apparently 'cheaper' than the competitions'. Well, Grahamstown's is one of the biggest, most respected and oldest in the country, and check out this review, written by Jean Barker, for MWeb's homepage:

See How Little Style Costs

Anyone who's done the festival knows that it always costs you way more than you planned. For starters, Fringe shows come in at around R60 a go, and the mains are much, much pricier. Then there's the drinks and coffees you have between shows to pass the time rather than walk home, and the hats, scarves, and other stuff that you buy that's of no future use to unless you live somewhere colder - and that's unlikely. Add it up? You're lucky if the festival comes in under R250 a day for two shows and survival, before accommodation.
Sure it's worth it if you got the cash to gamble on whether you'll enjoy a show or not. But gambling on art's not within the price range of most of the people who actually live in Grahamstown. The kids who busk (or beg, it varies) as mimes might be able to club together for a plastic toy gun at the end of the day, but they're not going to the shows, or desperately queuing to score the last tickets to the Old Mutual Acoustic Encounters.
That doesn't mean that the festival isn't a completely different time bubble - and that the kids in the streets and the old lady rationing her carefully kept pension won't remember each festival forever. The whole town really seems in on it, and into it. The festival isn't just for art. It's also for the mama car-guarding in a skirt and no stockings until 2 in the morning, to the kids watching the free stuff around the village green. It's for the crowds gathering at the old Apartheid-styled Settlers Monument to see snippets of shows together with out-of-town punters every evening. It's also for returning guest stars, the PE police force... they'll include you by stopping you for a friendly body-search if you're caught walking around being black in the suburbs. It's just like old times, sometimes. But friendlier.
So ultimately, whoever you are, it's a FESTIVAL. Which is good. And retailers like Russels, who know how little style costs them, are in on it too. They hired sokkie-singer Deon Esterhuizen to perform in the street outside the store with his CDs on sale, facilitated by his friendly estate-agent wife. While he sang, families danced with their kids on the pavement, and mauve-flower-clad tannies gathered in wonderment, waiting in line for a hug. All for free! A passing grandpa bought the album for cash.
So the Grahamstown National Arts Festival is everybody's. But different, not equal. And great fun.

Richard Catto said...

I'd say Tulbagh is coming due for another smiting.

An asteroid will fall on them.

When will they learn?

tonypark said...


I've been there. I'm not sure it's worth R20, though I did get a very nice (and very expensive) bottle of home made ginger beer from one of ye olde craft shops.

Muriel said...

An offline response from one of the organisers of our town's festival: " I agree entirely with you - M and I were enticed by the theme and advertising of "Christmas in Winter" two years ago and decided to go and have a look. We were most unhappy with the entrance fee as well, especially when we were then presented with stallholders selling leather belts. The Festival lacked a "festive feeling" and as a result we have never been back. I have been against any entrance fee to the Olive Festival ['our' festival] since the start and will continue to fight those who see it as an easy way to make money. That said, it is very difficult to raise sufficient funding each year to cover all expenses, but we have managed and will hopefully continue to do so."

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