The history of Cape Town’s raucous new year’s celebration, which is still going on

January 8, 2013

Performers march in Cape Town's "second new year." RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

It's hard to find a city with a more complicated history than Cape Town, South Africa's second-largest and one of the continent's spots most affected by colonialism. Several moments in that long history come crashing together in the city's annual new year's celebrations, some of which are still going strong.

Technically, the Cape Town holiday of Tweede Nuwe Jaar, which is Afrikaans (the language used by mostly Dutch descendants of European settlers in South Africa) for "second new year," takes place on Jan. 2. But it can continue for days or even weeks in some parts of the city. It's about partying, yes, but also street performances and marches from groups called "Klopses," face-painted troupes that might look familiar to anyone who has seen Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans.

The story of Tweede Nuwe Jaar goes back to the early Dutch settlers. Specifically, it has to do with the city's history as a slave trading port. That's right: This fun, free-wheeling holiday has its roots in the slave trade and in Cape Town's history as an economic center of colonialism's worst practices. Dave Mayers, with the CBS-affiliated news site SmartPlanet, runs down the origin of the story as it's commonly told:

The tradition is said to have originated shortly after the Dutch founded Cape Town in 1652 as a resupply port for its ships headed to the Far East. The ships brought Dutch settlers to the Cape of Good Hope, but they also delivered slaves from Madagascar, India and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia.

Once on the Cape, the roughly 63,000 slaves intermingled with the similarly oppressed local Khoisan people to form a unique, vibrant culture on the southern tip of Africa. Celebrations similar to today’s Tweede Nuwe Jaar were said to take place during the New Year’s festivities, a time when Dutch masters went on vacation, leaving their slaves to their own devices.

Troupe coordinator Moegamat Rushdien Sardien told The New Age, “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.”

The story gets more complicated from there. The troupes picked up their distinctly minstrel look from another country with a deep history of slavery and racial diversity: the United States. Before the civil war, minstrel performers in America had been predominantly white, wearing the now-infamous blackface. After the war, black performers started putting on their own shows, though still wearing blackface. The black troupes gained such popularity that, by the late 1800s, some prominent ones had toured South Africa as many as three or four times.


A troupe performs in Cape Town for the "second new year." (RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images)

The American minstrel shows were a hit in South Africa – maybe because the lighthearted if reductive treatment of complicated racial issues also resonated in the country – and the entertainment entered the cultural milieu. That included, among other things, the practice of black performers wearing blackface, which is still manifest in the outlandish face painting in Tweede Nuwe Jaar. The face paint is no longer uniformly black or white, though. Judging from photos, just about every color is used.

The holiday evolved again with the implementation of Apartheid after South Africa's 1948 election. Racially integrated South African neighborhoods, which perhaps by virtue of their diversity had become centers of Tweede Nuwe Jaar celebrations, were forcibly separated along the newly legislated racial lines. The government, perhaps seeing the parades as unwelcome celebrations of racial diversity, closed their routes to all non-whites. After Apartheid, the state began offering outright support to the troupes, treating them as part of the city's celebrated cultural heritage.

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