HALALA
03/01/2018 14:42 SAST | Updated 03/01/2018 14:42 SAST

Do You Know The Dark Origins Behind Tweede-Nuwe-Jaar?

The tradition dates back to the days when blackface was still a thing.

Mike Hutchings / Reuters
A participant in the traditional Cape Town Minstrel Festival.

Cape Town's annual minstrel carnival, also known as the Tweede-Nuwe-Jaar (or second new year), was its typical feast of colour in 2018, with 13,000 participants in the streets wearing sparkling costumes, singing traditional songs and dancing.

50,000 spectators joined in the festive celebrations this year, which is one of the most financially supported cultural events on the South African calendar –– but the festival wasn't always so full of fun and games.

Tweede-Nuwe-Jaar has a dark history.

AFP/Getty Images
Members of minstrel troupes sing and dance as they march in the city centre during the annual Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Second New Year) Cape Town Minstrels Carnival on January 2, 2018, in Cape Town. The Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Second New Year) Cape Town Minstrels Carnival is a main event that see more than 40 troupes, and nearly 1,000 members, dressed with bright coloured costumes, and marching while playing music and dancing, through the centre of Cape Town. The Tweede Nuwe Jaar celebration dates back to the time before slavery was abolished in the Cape colony, during which slaves were allowed to relax on the day following New Years Day. These troupes also aim at creating social cohesion, activities for youth, and connection with culture in the mostly impoverished crime-ridden communities in which the members live.

In 1674, according to SA History, Cape governor Isbrand Broke insisted slaves should take part in the traditional whites-only New Year's Day festivities, bribing them with tobacco, money and clothing to participate on their only day off during the year.

The slave masters revelled in the performance of the slave "ghoemaliedjie" songs -- many of which lamented their treatment at the hands of their masters -- and traditional ghoema-drum performances.

But the carnival really established itself as an event at the height of the 18th-century slave era, and became an important opportunity for communities to come together. Even after slavery was abolished in 1834, the event remained an important day for Cape Malay people.

"Over time, slaves managed to establish families and social networks despite the significant control exercised over their lives by the colonial authorities. They especially enjoyed dancing and playing music at picnics and weddings in an attempt to foster social cohesion amongst each other," SA History explains.

The Cape Malay communities later adopted the "coon" identity emerging from the rise in popularity of minstrel shows in the U.S. during the 19th century, in which skits and musicals were performed by white people wearing blackface to mock the slaves working for them. The humiliating shows became so popular and widespread in the U.S., that they have been called "the first theatrical form that was distinctly American".

"...the songs from American minstrel shows were sung at the Cape, even before they were staged in the U.S. This involved groups of Malay men, who would walk up and down the streets while singing certain Dutch (and on occasion, American) songs 'in perfect harmony.' Soon, certain bands of singers formed 'serenaders', such as the Celebrated Ethiopian Serenaders in 1848. The appearance of Christy's Minstrels alongside the Celebrated Ethiopian Minstrels revolutionised Cape Town entertainment in August 1962."

"Our songs comes from our forefather and their fathers before. They came here as slaves, and they were oppressed," an unnamed source is quited as saying in an old newspaper article on slavery in the Cape, found by author Lindokuhle Nkosi in the District Six Museum archive.

"And so the only way they could express themselves was putting into word; singing, dancing, making music, being jolly. So that the next one would think that we are happy. In the meantime, we are expressing our feelings about certain things."

During apartheid the festival became an act of defiance. After the Group Areas Act was implemented in Cape Town in 1951, the areas where participants had been allowed to compete were now off-limits to them, because they were located in "white areas".

This saw the festival relocated to the historic District Six, where it would develop its political roots, eventually becoming a site of important anti-apartheid resistance.

Today, the tradition celebrates the emancipation of slaves in South Africa -- a "rite of renewal" -- with participants reclaiming the atrocities of the past and turning them into a day celebrating their hard-won freedom. But the dark remnants of the Minstrel Carnival, however, remain painted on the faces of all who take part –– as an important reminder of a past many would prefer to forget.

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