Every January, the streets of South Africa’s second largest city, Cape Town, are filled with the festive sights and sounds of its biggest social event – The Cape Town Minstrel Carnival. The festival got its start in the country’s colored -- or mixed race -- community over 200 years ago with the aim of ridiculing the ruling class. From its beginning through the days of apartheid to multi-race democracy today, the festival has thrived, but it’s also changed. Voice of America English to Africa Service reporter Marinda Claasen in Cape Town says the event is traditionally known as “Tweede Nuwejaar” or ‘Second New Year’ and dates back to the mid 1800s when white American minstrels visited the Cape with black-painted faces and banjos.
The Cape Town colored community -- themselves recently emancipated from slavery -- mimicked these performers. But in their case, they painted their faces white and sang merry but sarcastic songs, often chiding their former masters. These days more than 10,000 brightly dressed, singing and dancing participants take to the streets of Cape Town encouraged by thousands of cheering spectators who line the streets from early morning.
One of the traditions of the Carnival is the colors of the costumes worn by the different troupes. In the past it was such a secret that participants were blindfolded when they went for fittings.
According to Kevin Momberg from the Cape Town Minstrels Carnival Association this has changed,“… that was something some people did, but obviously that was some years ago. Now, in the past 10 to 15 years it is not happening any more. Nowadays, because there is such a lot of competition and so many teams, the colors become something that people fight for. They want to have those colors so they cut the costumes first.
Today, the historical roots of the Carnival are all but forgotten. The Minstrel Carnival is more a celebration of life.
Recently the City of Cape Town changed the name of the festival from “Coon Carnival” to the “Minstrel Carnival” because the term ‘coon’ has a derogatory connotation to some people.
Kevin Momberg says, “We accepted that because in [South Africa] when we became a democracy, we obviously had to become more politically correct in everything we say and in the way we speak to each other. So yes, we are still comfortable with that although we still use the name in its Afrikaans form, Kaapse Klopse, which is still well known but I think that will most probably, in a few years time, also fade out.”
Under South Africa’s all-white rule the Carnival faced enormous challenges. Segregation, forced removals and discrimination made the troupes and their performances more difficult to organize. The government often placed the best stadiums off-limits to the colored community and where the carnival was able to perform it had to do so in front of segregated audiences.
Now, in the “New South Africa”, the government is lending its support to the carnival and Nelson Mandela himself presided over the opening in 1996. With tourism quickly becoming a pillar of the local community, city officials talk about turning the “Minstrel Carnival” into a celebration that will rival festivals in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro.
It is not a move welcomed by all. This person says economic advantage can be lacking, “Money is always a problem … If you come to our stadiums and we have got 10,000 people, if there is 500 white people that’s a lot. So, it’s the colored people that is practicing and I’m putting a name to it, I don’t have a problem with that. It is the disadvantaged people playing for the disadvantaged people. The tourist is not relevant where we are concerned as they just come and watch. We don’t have the statistics as to how many beds they fill up, how many rooms they book and what they buy. We don’t get anything from that.”
There are always challenges facing the Carnival, mostly financial, but somehow this tradition has survived. As usual, this year thousands of minstrels took to the streets in a dazzling display of colorful satin uniforms, shiny parasols, painted faces, foot-tapping banjo tunes and dozens of brass bands merrily blaring a cacophony of festive tunes across the streets of Cape Town.