South Africa has no shortage of events – there are over eighty music festivals each year, nine of them over the Easter weekend alone. Apart from these there are umpteen minor events in countless small towns. Diverting as these may be, you aren’t going to plan your trip around them, but there are a number of more significant events (listed here) that may be worth pencilling into your holiday diary. Although Johannesburg and Cape Town tend to dominate, the country’s two biggest cultural events, the National Arts Festival and the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, both take place in small Karoo towns (Grahamstown and Oudtshoorn respectively) that, once things get humming, swell to twice their normal size.
Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, Cape Town South Africa’s longest and most raucous annual party brings over ten thousand spectators to watch the parade through the city centre on January 2 for the Tweede Nuwe Jaar or “Second New Year” celebrations. Brightly decked-out minstrel troupes parade, and vie in singing and dancing contests. Tickets (R30–60) can be reserved through Computicket ().
Maynardville Shakespeare Festival, Cape Town. A usually imaginative production of one of the Bard’s plays is staged each year in the beautiful setting of the Maynardville Open Air Theatre in Wynberg.
Cape Town Pride Pageant. Series of gay-themed events over two weeks, taking in a bunch of parties and a street parade.
FNB Dance Umbrella, Johannesburg . The country’s leading contemporary dance festival showcases a diversity of local forms from mid-February to mid-March.
Cape Argus Pick ’n Pay Cycle Tour, Cape Town. The largest, and arguably most spectacular, individually timed bike race in the world, much of it along the ocean’s edge, draws many thousands of spectators.
Cape Town International Jazz Festival, Cape Town . Initiated in 2000 as the Cape Town counterpart of the world-famous North Sea Jazz Festival, this event is held over the last weekend of the month and draws leading local and international performers.
Out in Africa South African Gay & Lesbian Film Festival Cape Town and Johannesburg . Purportedly the most popular movie festival in the country, screening gay- and lesbian-themed international and local productions over the first ten days of the month.
Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees, Oudtshoorn, Western Cape . South Africa’s largest Afrikaans arts and culture festival turns the otherwise dozy Karoo dorp of Oudtshoorn into one big jumping party with a significant English-language component.
Two Oceans Marathon, Cape Town . Another of the Western Cape’s big sporting events is this 56-kilometre ultra-marathon, which bills itself as “the world’s most beautiful marathon”, with huge crowds lining the route to cheer on the participants.
Splashy Fen Music Festival, Underberg, KwaZulu-Natal . Held during the second half of the month, South Africa’s oldest music festival draws thousands of punters to a beautiful farm in the Drakensberg foothills, with a spread of mainstream and alternative rock and pop and a kids’ programme too.
Pink Loerie Mardi Gras, Knysna, Western Cape . Five-day gay pride celebration of parties, contests, cabaret, drag shows and performance in South Africa’s oyster capital.
Franschhoek Literary Festival, Franschhoek, Western Cape . Three day celebration of books, writers and wine, featuring leading local and international writers, editors and cartoonists.
Good Food & Wine Show, Cape Town . Celebrity chefs from around the world cooking live is just one of the compelling attractions that make this the foodie event of the year. There are also hands-on workshops, delicious nibbles and wine as well as kitchen implements and books for sale. The event is also held in Johannesburg (Sept) and Durban (July).
Comrades Marathon, Durban/Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal . A national institution, held at the end of the month. The Comrades, run along the 80km between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, attracts around thirteen thousand runners, many of them international competitors, and is followed by a huge TV audience.
National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape (see The Grahamstown Festival). The largest arts festival in Africa, with its own fringe festival – ten days of jazz, classical music, dance, cabaret and theatre spanning every conceivable type of performance.
Encounters South African International Documentary Film Festival, Johannesburg and Cape Town . Fortnight-long showcase of documentary film-making from South Africa and the world.
UN Comedy Festival, Johannesburg. Spin-off of the older Cape Town Comedy Festival.
Knysna Oyster Festival Knysna, Western Cape . Ten days of carousing and oyster-eating along the Garden Route with lots of wine-tasting and other satellite events in between.
Good Food & Wine Show, Durban .
Durbs Comedy Festival, Durban. Spin-off of the older Cape Town Comedy Festival.
Oppikoppi Bushveld Festival, Northam, North West Province oppikoppi.co.za. South Africa’s scaled-down answer to Woodstock, Oppikoppi (Afrikaans for “on the hill”) brings the bushveld hills alive with the sound of music, as some sixty local and foreign bands rock the bundu (equivalent of Aussie “outback”) for four days and nights.
Joy of Jazz, Johannesburg . Jo’burg’s flagship jazz festival offers three days of varied music in the Newtown precinct.
Arts Alive, Johannesburg . Jo’burg’s largest arts event features a month of dance, visual art, poetry and music at venues in Newtown, the cultural precinct in the inner city.
Hermanus Whale Festival, Hermanus, Western Cape . To coincide with the peak whale-watching season, the southern Cape town of Hermanus stages its annual festival over several days towards the end of the month with plays, a craft market, a children’s festival and live music.
Out of the Box Festival, Cape Town . Extraordinary week-long event that brings together exciting puppetry from all over the subcontinent and beyond with family, adult and film programmes.
Cape Town Comedy Festival, Cape Town . Africa’s biggest comedy festival brings the world’s hottest acts to the Mother City for a week.
Good Food & Wine Show, Johannesburg .
November to March
Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts, Cape Town021 799 8783. Popular concerts held on the magnificent lawns of the botanical gardens at the foot of Table Mountain. Performances begin at 5.30pm and cover a range of genres. Come early to find a parking place, bring a picnic and some Cape bubbly, and kick back. Tickets available at the gate.
Mother City Queer Projects, Cape Town. A hugely popular party attracting thousands of gay revellers. Outlandish get-ups, multiple dancefloors and a mood of sustained delirium make this event a real draw.
Carols by Candlelight at Kirstenbosch, Cape Town021 799 8783. The botanical gardens’ annual carol-singing and Nativity tableaux – staged on the Thursday to the Sunday before Christmas – is a Cape Town institution, drawing crowds of families with their picnic baskets. Gates open at 7pm and the singing kicks off at 8pm.
Franschhoek Cap Classique and Champagne Festival, Franschhoek . Popular three-day bacchanalia of bubbly sampling – a vast selection of local and French sparkling wine is on hand – and gourmandizing in the Cape Winelands.
December to March
Spier Summer Festival, Spier Wine Estate, Stellenbosch, Western Cape . Four months of major arts events, which are increasingly taking on an African flavour, featuring music, opera, dance, stand-up comedy and theatre.