The 2nd of January or Tweede Nuwe Jaar, has always been important to the people of the Western Cape.
During this time Dutch slave masters were on holiday and slaves were given the freedom of the city. On this day, the slaves brought life to the city of Cape Town filling the streets with music, dance, colour and festivity.
This tradition has given rise to what Shamil Jeppie describes as the “pre-eminent expression of working class culture in Cape Town”, The Cape Town Minstrels Carnival.
Moegamat Rushdien Sardien, a coordinator of the Burger Happy Boys in Bo-Kaap, explains: “The tradition of the ‘klopse’ (troops or teams) come from the time of the slaves. The slaves were only let out once a year and if you only get out once a year, you’ll go crazy. People jumped, danced and could do what they wanted.”
Richard Stemmet, the troop captain of the Shoprite Pennsylvanians Crooning Minstrels agrees, “All the heartache and pain you went through in the year is now behind you. When it came at the new year, everyone partied. People painted their faces and went crazy.”
Using songs and masked faces, slaves broke from normally inescapable conditions and were free.
Beginning with the Christmas bands on Christmas Eve, followed by the Malay choirs or nagtroepe (night troops) on December 31 and ending with Tweede Nuwe Jaar and stadium competitions, the inner city of Cape Town has since the 18th century symbolically buried the old year and ushered in the new.
The Tweede Nuwe Jaar Street Parade starts in Kuizergracht Street in District Six, proceeds down to Darling Street, left into Adderley, up Wale into Bo-Kaap and down Roos Street. History reveals the significance of this ancestral route.
At the height of slavery, about 63000 slaves from India, Africa, Madagascar and South East Asia were destined for Cape Town to be the property of Dutch slave masters.
They were to meet with indigenous peoples, such as the Khoi and San who also found themselves in the same oppressive circumstances.
Together they had to make sense of this brutal reality and begin the very difficult process of the creating one unique culture and identity. In this diverse cultural experience, traditions common in Africa and Asia were New Year’s celebrations.
By offering revellers a new start, New Year’s festivals provided an overlapping area from which slaves in the Cape could construct a community, preserve history and celebrate a new and emerging Creole culture.
To forge community spirit, the visiting minstrels selected the route that would entertain their family and friends. Tables lined the streets with food on offer to show appreciation.
From its origins as a response to colonisation, the carnival was also critical for building community during apartheid.
With the implementation of the Group Areas Act of 1950, Cape Town saw the destruction of District Six with Sophiatown in Johannesburg and Cato Manor in Durban suffering the same fate.
People who were once living in the same building, street or neighbourhood were now scattered.
In this new cruel environment, the carnival once again was used to grow community and social networks. The Sea Point Swifts, for example, re-established themselves in Bontehuwel and performed under the same name for 50 years. In today’s environment, facing social ills such as unemployment and poverty, the festival has become a vehicle for youth development. Hours of dedicated work and preparation builds tangible skills as troop members grow as musicians, dancers and organisers. Taliep Petersen’s talent, for example, was birthed in the rhythms and the rhymes of the Cape troubadours.
Clive Geyer, the owner of Golden Stars Youth Development in Manenberg, explains, “Living in Manenberg is not easy. It is especially hard for children as their parents may be unemployed and they face drug-related problems in the family. I wanted to build an organisation for these children and decided to open up a troep (troop). The carnival gives the children something to do and it keeps them off the streets.
“We deliberately do not take professional artists but work with inexperienced children to expose them to their own potential. Currently I have 400 children in the team, some as young as two years old. For us the klopse is about the youth and through the carnival we make them professional.”
Aslam Fortune, who has more than 30 years of experience in the klopse, says, “Many parents feel they can keep their children safe send them to the troop clubhouses. Children get to learn and they know there are people they can trust.”
The “klopse kammers” (clubhouses) have become a safe haven for many youth. From the klopse kammers of the Shoprite Pennsylvanians Crooning Minstrels a warm meal is provided to the Hanover Park community every Sunday.
In the absence of family structures, the troops assume the work of rearing and nurturing the youth of their communities. According to Sardien, “Through the troops we build community. People who join the troops begin to build a family.”
Geyer sees all the children in the troop as his own. “Every night the children came to practice and we have become a unit. They know they can turn to me for anything.”
To build this type of unity takes enormous amounts of resources and funds. To be ready on January 2 requires a dedicated space for practice with most troops practising a minimum of five times in the week.
Resources are required to cut and make the gear (uniforms, hats and umbrellas), buy instruments and sound equipment, book buses and paint faces. Instruments cost at least R35000 with uniforms alone costing up to R45000.
Transport is also a major challenge.
Fortune explains, “Every bus with a driver costs R3000. If you need five busses just for your troops and you perform for five days because there are stadium competitions, then the transport alone costs R75000.”
According to Sardien; “It takes a lot of work to run a corps. If you want to take your troops on the road, it will easily cost R300000.”
The funding to support the festival comes from various organisations. The Department of National Arts and Culture awards funding to the Cape Town Minstrels Carnival Association (CTMCA). Among other priorities, the minstrel board uses these funds to support the hiring of buses.
Sponsorship from the National Lottery this year supported the purchase of gear. The city of Cape Town sponsors the festival to the value of R4m, with most of these funds going towards the city’s own costs such as logistics (toilets, signage) traffic, security and medical personnel. As Stemmet says; “The members and the troop captains never benefit from that money.”
The city’s contribution also falls far short of the estimated R15m that is required to pull off the festival. When asked where the remaining balance comes from, Stemmet says; “The rest of the money comes from the poorest of the poor in the community. They support the minstrels with their little bit of bonus and holiday pay.”
Each troop also fundraises and some troops may have sponsorship.
The lack of financial security affects the stability of the festival. According to Geyer, it is quite common for troop captains to be in R50000 debt by the end of the carnival.
Keen to improve understanding between t