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Stellenbosch’s Woordfees

Stellenbosch’s Woordfees

As Good as their Word – Anita de Villiers is blown away by Stellenbosch University’s annual Woordfees... and thereby hangs a tale (apologies to Shakespeare)

Pictures: Anita de Villiers and Supplied

Woordfees_0755The orchestra began the open-air concert with a medley of tunes from Voëlvry. Instant déjà vu. Although tamed into classical cadences, the music opened a floodplain of half-forgotten mental notes.

The occasion was a Symphonic Rebellion performance, a fusion of classic and rock music by the band Die Heuwels Fantasties, the Stellenbosch Musica Perpetua Youth Orchestra and the Paul Roos Gymnasium Choir. It was one of about 50 contemporary music performances during last year’s Woordfees at Stellenbosch University.

The venue for this particular event was the 300-year-old Neethlingshof Wine Estate. But what is Voëlvry (‘outcast’) and why so evocative? Well, hereby hangs the tale.

A time lapse of many years separates the first and second arts festivals I’ve attended. The first was the Grahamstown Arts Festival in 1988 and the second this one, last year.


1988. The year that Grahamstown, the Cradle of Anglophilia, was shaken by a surreal happening called Piekniek by Dingaan (subtitled Kinders van Verwoerd), a rock opera that satirised the Nationalist Government, apartheid and Afrikaner conservatism. Subsequently, an Afrikaans musical tsunami led to the Voëlvry movement, with artists like Nataniël, Johannes Kerkorrel, the Gereformeerde Blues Band, Koos Kombuis and others pounding out their protest against the establishment. Max du Preez described it as ‘the Boere-Woodstock’ and in the Cape Times it was called ‘an unprecedented orgy of Afrikaner anarchy’. And I was privy to this happening, blown away by the energy of the artists and their music.

So I had great expectations for the festival of words, music and arts in the late summer of 2015. The theme of the ten-day festival, and the festival’s flagship musical production performed at Spier Wine Farm amphitheatre, was 16 Onse, not just a referral to everything that makes up a pound, but to the many people of the Rainbow Nation that make up Ons (Us). It was also Stellenbosch’s 16th Woordfees.


And could this Hydra born of 1988 be tamed by the muses, with literally hundreds of performances in the genres of literature, food and cooking demonstrations, contemporary discourse, classical music, contemporary and cabaret music, theatre, films, fine art and projects aimed at learners. I would have needed the dexterity of a riel dancer to taste just a slice of the offerings.

Woordfees_1107The reconciliatory tone that Nelson Mandela set at the opening of South Africa’s first democratic parliament in May 1994, by choosing to read the English translation of Ingirid Jonker’s poem Die Kind (The Child), boded well for post-apartheid Afrikaans literature.

The 68 items on the Skrywersfees (Writers’ Festival) involved discussions with authors and poets, and was a smorgasbord of themes, ranging from the Afrikamasutra (Carla Groenewald’s translation of the Kama Sutra), to crime fiction (Deon Meyer, as the most translated and read exponent, introducing his new book Ikarus), to books on historical events like the Anglo-Boer War, such as Francois Smith’s heart-rending book Kamphoer (camp whore), to Danie Smuts’ quirky narration of old remedies and rituals for all kinds of indispositions in Boererate (home remedies).

The theatre productions could hold their own on any world stage – comedy, satire, tragedy, musical and dance. Playing to capacity audiences, celebrated actors Marius Weyers’ and Sandra Prinsloo’s performances in Tom Holloway’s And No More Shall We Part (translated into Afrikaans by Hennie van Greunen as Vir Ewig en Altyd), were a moving portrayal of the human side of self-euthanasia.

Equally sensitive was the theme of paedophilia in Son.Maan.Sterre. with veterans Louis van Niekerk, Wilma Snyman, and stellar performances by Nicola Hanekom and Wilhelm van der Walt. Overall, it was a sophisticated and open-minded audience for which the playwrights, producers and actors offered thought-provoking and riveting theatre.

Woordfees_1094Nostalgia for days gone by was a recurrent theme, especially in the food and cooking demonstrations. At foodie Neil Stemmet’s presentation, we were served rooibos tea that had been brewing for a few hours, with condensed milk. “The original and only way to have rooibos,” said Neil. So he took us on a trip down his foodie memory lane, reading from his book Sout+Peper and reminiscing about his grandmother’s farm kitchen that had inspired his love of unpretentious erfeniskos (heritage food).

All the while the aroma of slow-roasting lamb enveloped us and, by tasting time, Neil had the audience eating out of his hand. Served with what he called a trekslaai – slices of tomato, onion and spekboom leaves, left to stand to draw in the slaaisous (salad dressing). Remember how everyone used to vie for this left-over juice after family dinners – it was lekkerder as lekker.

‘Seafood in Abundance!’ was the promise of Niël du Bois, owner of the unceremonious, alfresco pop-up eatery De Vette Mossel, a food-wine-song-literati stomping ground. Gert Vlok Nel played his harmonica and sang about being beautiful in Beaufort West, self-proclaimed “professional hellbender” Johan Bakkes was host-without-a-cause, and authors Kerneels Breytenbach, Marinda Fitzpatrick and Chanette Paul talked about their work – from Oscar to erotica.

Time to reminisce ran out when a long line of students formed at the entrance, ready to animate this late-night jolkol (hang-out) with hot blues, cold wine and some dancing on the tables. Time for the seniors to depart, however hip they had been in their youth.

I was happy to find that Nataniël and Koos Kombuis were, after all these years, still on stage, humour replacing the protest of the eighties. Bob Dylan’s Tambourine Man and Jacques Brel’s If You Go Away sounded just as good in Afrikaans sung by Koos van der Merwe (yes, really, and he’s a real-life dominee), who interpreted these great artists’ songs with his own blend of melancholy and flair.

It was to the historical Stellenbosch Moederkerk with its neo-Gothic tower and pulpit that I went for lunch-hour time-outs and some riveting performances on the massive organ. Amid Bach, Mozart, Pachelbel and Elgar arose the fresh notes of the late South African composer Surendran Reddy’s (1962-2010) Toccata for Madiba, that fused classical music, jazz and mbaqanga into what he called ‘clazz’.

But to really feel of the ambience and energy at this festival, you have to consider its backdrop: the university and town of Stellenbosch. Whether ambling the Blaauwklippen art route at twilight, or sipping a cappuccino while reading the festival’s daily newspaper Ink at the café at Skuinshuis, or joining cultural historian Mathilda Burden on a walkabout to discover the town’s architectural treasures, the textures of this place and occasion just kept on multiplying.

It was so good to understand the medium that wove part of the tapestry that is South Africa. Appreciation of the arts and inspiration really took flight during the week in Stellenbosch. Voëlvry?


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