Rio Carnival, Notting Hill Carnival, Kaapse Klopse. You may not recognize the last one, but in Cape Town there is a lively and festive annual New Year’s carnival.
The festival’s origins date back to the colonial rule and slave trade era in the late 1700’s. The Cape Malay community are descendants of Malay slaves, European sailors, Hottentots and colonial settlers from era of the Cape of Storms, which later became known as the Cape of Good Hope. When slavery was finally abolished in the early 1800’s, the slaves decided to celebrate their newfound freedom with a parade by getting dressed up in their finest outfits, painting their faces so they could not be recognised by their former owners, and marching from the Castle to the Bo-Kaap on 2 January. It has been an annual event ever since.
The contemporary Cape Malay community is a fiercely proud blend of Muslims and Christians, renowned for their sharp humour, charisma and colourful use of Afrikaans, liberally spiced with swearwords which many believe is unsurpassed anywhere in the world. The Klopse has survived as a celebration of freedom and culture, and the outfits have become brighter, but not smaller.
It is THE event of the year in Cape Town, and almost everybody in the community takes part, some even travel from Johannesburg and further afield to participate. Preparations for the main New Year event commence around Easter, when the back-room seamstresses start sewing the suits (the brighter the better), and the junior members begin practising their songs in the dimly-lit backyards of humble homes in the Cape Flats. Every troupe member pays around R400 (£40) for their suit in the troupe’s colours – a tidy sum in an area where unemployment and poverty is rife. Teenagers practice for nine months to play their battered brass instruments and to learn to play the gumba beat.
When the big day finally arrives, the kids are ready by 9am while the adults slowly ease into the party vibe – some being quite pickled… When the procession finally gets going, the troupe does a practise march through the suburb street before heading off towards the city centre in a blizzard of neon hats and small umbrellas.
One by one, the groups file past, each brighter and louder than the one before. A proud youngster doing their most impressive break-dancing moves will often lead a troupe. The kids are followed by the adults, who in turn are followed by a ragtag brass and percussion band performing popular and traditional songs, which participants march and dance to. Babies are carried by proud fathers and the wheelchair-bound are pushed along. Grandfathers, their faces covered in glitter, socialise with spectators familiar to them, who are camped out with picnic baskets along the route. After the march in the city, many participants head for the retirement homes before continuing to party late into the night.
I was privileged to be a part of it all, and an honorary member of the Olympic All Stars troupe. I was touched by the openness and generosity of my hosts, who invited me into their humble homes and shared their traditional food and tea while answering all our silly questions with genuine enthusiasm. I was amazed to find that so few people outside the community were aware of this carnival and its salutary significance. Some troupes are sponsored, but most of the members have to pay the organisers, busses and seamstresses from their own, very modest wages.
In a poor community where drug abuse is highly prevalent, preparations for the carnival unifies the people and it certainly plays a role in keeping vulnerable kids off the streets. It is definitely worth supporting when visiting South Africa.