The cancellation of the Edinburgh festivals has given the city a chance to rethink them

Street performers on the Royal Mile, in 2006. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

It’s difficult to see the way forward from the eye of the storm. But as the coronavirus lockdown continues, some community leaders are beginning to articulate the areas in which The Great Pause might be used to imagine how we can rebuild a better society afterwards.

One person with their eye on this long game is Fergus Linehan, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, who recently told the Scotsman’s esteemed theatre critic Joyce McMillan:

“Over the last 30 years or so… the arts (have been) framed as part of a wider economic regeneration agenda that’s all about tourism and never-ending growth. But now… we’re recognising that old approach is no longer sustainable either environmentally, or in terms of the real value of the arts, which are so much more than just a branding exercise.”

Linehan went on to say that the cancellation of the Edinburgh Festival this year offered an opportunity to reimagine the city’s August celebration in a positive fashion, one that might address many of the criticisms thrown at it in recent years. The Scottish capital is regularly listed alongside Venice and Barcelona as epicentres of overtourism in Europe. The halt to global travel the Coronavirus crisis has brought offers a chance for everyone, from tourists to governments, airlines to local authorities, to re-examine their engagement with the industry.

Staged in 1947, the inaugural Edinburgh Festival was billed as providing a post-war “platform for the flowering of the human spirit,” a healing, international programme of high-cultural music and theatre. Despite the best intentions, many working-class community theatre groups of the time saw this festival as a vehicle for the establishment. Eight of them – many with expressly socialist origins – travelled to the city to stage a series of "fringe" theatre events, with the intention of helping the working classes to be seen and heard.

The two festivals have since flourished in increasingly easy symbiosis: the prestigious Edinburgh International Festival as a curated programme of high-end international dance, theatre, opera and music events; the Fringe as a grassroots slew of open-invitation work incorporating everything from experimental theatre to big-name comedy to eager student and amateur dramatics companies.

The Fringe Society itself isn’t a corporate entity that decides who can perform in Edinburgh in August. It’s a membership organisation that facilitates open access to all who have a show and a venue to perform it in, from high-end professional theatres to blacked-out church halls and hotel conference rooms. 

In recent years, however, the Fringe in particular has become a slave to its own success. It should be an egalitarian platform that transforms the centre of a scenic city into a giant urban arts quarter for three weeks. But over time, it’s become obsessed with growth, with the numbers inevitably forming the centrepiece of all closing weekend reporting. Those numbers paint a stark picture of how quickly things have changed. In 2010, 1.95 million tickets were sold for 2,453 shows. By last year, it was 3 million tickets for 3,800 shows. 

The extent to which locals now disapprove of the Edinburgh Festival can be overstated. Some 56% of attendees come from Scotland, and in 2018, 72% of residents said the festival made the city a better place to live (down from 78% two years previous, but still a healthy majority). Yet the cultural wealth of an August in Edinburgh now comes with all the problems over overtourism, not least the negative environmental impact of all the short-haul city breaks the festival inspires.

Another recent downside of Edinburgh’s popularity with tourists, however, has already begun to change beyond anything that seemed possible even a few months ago. Last year’s UK Housing Review revealed there were 10,000 Airbnb properties in Edinburgh – one for every 48 city residents, a higher concentration than London, Paris or New York. Some 29 out of every 100 properties in the city’s desirable New Town area were active short-term rentals. Since Coronavirus hit, that number has plummeted. New long-term lets, by contrast, have risen by 62%, with 65 such properties being used to house homeless families.  

Suddenly, residents and prospective renters who make their homes in the city are no longer being sidelined in favour of visitors. Instead, a chance to rebuild equitably has arrived. It’s a story that is now mirrored in every major tourist city in the world. 

While elements of the Edinburgh festivals may irk locals, and in many cases have a real impact on quality of life, there’s broadly a lot of good feeling towards its more enjoyable aspects. The desire to sort out the negatives of overtourism is not so far matched by a desire to see the festivals cease to exist.

Already, some independent producers have spoken of perhaps visiting Edinburgh for a micro-Fringe this August, if public health advice permits, or to stage a digital programme. Otherwise, eyes will turn towards what may be possible in 2021, for the 73rd Edinburgh Festival in 74 years. The festival has a history of uniting nations through art and performance, it has broad public goodwill behind it, and it has a deadline. It’s well-placed to become the laboratory in which the international arts festival of the future is developed.

David Pollock is a freelance culture writer based in Edinburgh.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.