Nowhere in the world can any carnival or Mardi Gras
be compared with the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival in its
splendour, gaiety and unmistakably Cape flavour. In
order to understand this exciting blend of cultures,
we need to go back in time, to the
dark days of slavery and domination. The time when
slave masters violently abused and oppressed slaves.
Then it was customary for the slaves to be given
a holiday on New Year's Day, which they in turn
transformed into a day of celebration,
entertainment, feasting, visiting friends from house
to house, wearing of fanciful attires, and revelling
in music and dance.
This tradition of New Year celebration continued
after the emancipation of the slaves to the
accompaniment of street parades and bands. Indeed,
from the 1820s, street orchestras and singing
societies became regular features of these
Minstrels from America first visited the
Cape in 1848. This was ten years after the British
government had abolished slavery (but years
before emancipation in America).
The American minstrels were white, but they
blackened their faces with burnt cork. The inverse
of this behaviour became popular with the local
former slave population who, being dark skinned,
whitened their faces instead and wrote songs to mock
their former masters.
The sailors and musicians brought
with them American Coon songs to add to the
excitement of the festival.
In early American minstrel songs, �coon� was a
reference to a raccoon. Many of the lyrics make
humorous allusions to local figures.
By the end of the nineteenth century these
singing groups and bands began to be associated with
particular sports clubs and were usually costumed in
special attires distinguished by peculiar emblems.
Every year, they competed with one another in songs,
in dances, in parades, and in the wearing of
colourful outfits, as they marched through the
streets and suburbs of Cape Town.
The first attempt at organised celebration
was on January 1, 1907 when the Green Point
Cricket Club brought all the competitions
and singing groups together in a grand
competition at the Green Point Track
This was repeated in 1908 and 1909,
but was discontinued until 1920 and 1921
when Dr. A. Abdulrahman, the leader of the
African People's Organisation (APO), organised two
successive Grand Carnivals on Green Point Track.
From the early 1900s and over the course of the
next half-century, other elements, local and
foreign, ranging from African American religious
hymns to classical European musical forms and from
Mexican Cattle Stampers to stilt dancers of West
Indian inspirations, came to enrich the ongoing
creolisation of the festival.
The social and political pressures
associated with the formal
institutionalisation of apartheid led to the
inclusion of songs in Afrikaans in the Coon
Carnival repertoires from the 1940s. Other
changes followed as dances disappeared and
brass bands gradually replaced string bands.
In spite of every effort by the
Apartheid government to suppress the
carnival through the restrictions and forced
removal of the Group Areas Act and other
apartheid measures, its survival is
indicative of the resilience of the coloured
community and the permanence of their claim
to the possession of Cape Town.
As Denis-Constant Martin aptly puts it,
"the Coon [festival] was the locus of a
brutal but disguised confrontation; he could
not be a fighter; but he survived and with
him survives, in the new South Africa, a
discourse on one communal identity
continuing to express pride in belonging to
a group that survived all attempts at
denying the humanity of its members, as well
as anxieties regarding what the future has
in store for them."
Former President Nelson Mandela endorsed the
minstrel event in 1986 and is now a patron of the
Cape Town Minstrel Carnival Association.
Today up to 13,000 minstrels in
whiteface take to the streets garbed in shockingly
bright colours, either carrying colourful umbrellas
or playing an array of musical instruments.
minstrels are grouped into klopse ("clubs" in Cape
Dutch, but more accurately translated as troupes in
English). Participants are typically from
Afrikaans-speaking working class "coloured" families
who have preserved the custom since the mid-19th
Although it is still called the Coon Carnival by
many Capetonians, over recent years it has
been renamed the
Cape Town Minstrel Carnival.
The festival begins on New Year's Day and
continues into January. Festivities include street
parades with singing and dancing, costume
competitions and marches through the streets.
The minstrel parade on January 2nd is a
must-see for everyone in Cape Town, local or
visitor, as it reflects the heart and soul of
vibrant Cape Town and beyond.
Private groups such as the Matabele
Warriors and the Zulu Warriors also jostled
for recognition along with Christmas bands
and Malay Choirs as they selectively adopted
and innovatively adapted pop music to assume
new significance in the Cape local
|"Our songs come from our forefathers and their
fathers before. They were oppressed when they came.
They came here as slaves you know and they were
always the oppressed and so the only way they could
express themselves was putting it in words, singing,
dancing, making music and being jolly. So that the
next one would think we are happy. In the meantime
we are expressing our feelings about certain things"