Reflections on the luxury of life interrupted
It’s January 2nd and I want to head into the city for the Cape Town Cape Minstrel Carnival but I don’t really know how to get there or what to look for. The Minstrel Carnival, which occurs every year on this day, floods the streets of Cape Town with singing and dance performances by groups from the coloured community in a parade that opens a month-long competition between Minstrel Sports Clubs.
But it’s hard to find information about where and when and, well, what. So when Sophie calls and says, “I was thinking of going to the Cape Minstrels ….,” before she even finishes her sentence, “I’m in.” Within an hour we are at the corner of Wale and Adderley in front of St. George’s Cathedral with thousands of other people packed along the sidewalks, eyes fixed on the corner, waiting for the first troupe to appear.
With its history rooted in the one day each year – January 2, the Second New Year, or ‘Tweede Nuwejaar’ – where slaves in the Cape got a day off and celebrated together through music and dance, the Cape Minstrel Carnival today has evolved into a symbolic reclamation of the City by those displaced during the Apartheid years.
Buses transport whole neighborhoods of troupe members from the Cape Flats into the City where performers, ranging in age from five to ninety five and who practice over the course of a year for the competition, display their colorful costumes and signature umbrellas.
In a parade route that is several kilometers long, it is only after the third troupe passes that I realize the backdrop from where we are standing is the original Cape Town Slave Lodge and current Iziko Slave Museum. It is here that the Dutch East India Company housed (in terrible conditions) men and women brought as slaves from East and West Africa and Indonesia as they provided the much needed labor to build the City in the late 1600’s. Many were then bought and sold to a growing number of farmers who took them throughout the Cape to plant and harvest wheat crops, orchards and vineyards and to provide household labor. In ensuing years, the coloured community grew to include men and women from India arriving to South Africa as indentured servants.
As some members of these communities gained their freedom they established living communities on the fringes of a growing Cape Town in the Bo-Kaap and District Six area. All were officially freed in 1834 under British rule, though the vestiges of a slave society delineated by race remained, and remain still today having been augmented after 45 years of white supremacist rule under the Apartheid government.
It is in these years of the 20th century that the Group Areas Act brought the forced removal of whole communities of people from the neighborhoods they had developed to the outskirts of town based on race. In Cape Town, this included the complete demolition of District Six as people were forcibly moved out to the Cape Flats.
It is the descendants of all these communities – African, Indian, and Indonesians slaves, Dutch and British settlers as well as the indigenous KhoiKhoi, with whom I watch and walk along the parade route today. It is these descendants who share a complex and painful past; and it is these descendants who comprise the rich mix of life and laughter so evident in this day of celebration.
As I move among the crowd, bump elbows, take pictures and ask questions, I wonder if the collective color and vibrancy of diversity exhibited in this new community can overcome the residual burden of separation that still exists today in practice if not in law. Though not easy, on a day such as today, I think it most definitely can.