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A tradition born from segregation in the 1800s now unites South Africans of all walks of life and gets the new year off to a vibrant start. Writer Jaco Roos takes us along the parade route.
Text by: Jaco Roos
Fotos: Yunus Mohamed/Die Burger Media24
Country: South Africa

n the 2nd of January of every year, the bustling streets of Cape Town, South Africa, come to a standstill for the Cape Carnival, better known as the Kaapse Klopse, a music and dance festival that starts every new year on a high note. Thousands of spectators watch the passing parade of klopse (troupes, in English) garbed in colourful costumes, either singing and dancing or playing an array of musical instruments.

South Africa is often thought of in terms of black and white. However, during the course of its history, South Africa has been a melting pot of a huge variety of cultures: European settlers, the indigenous Khoisan and Xhosa peoples, as well as slaves of Malay origin, brought from places such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Madagascar, and Mozambique. Over the centuries, these groups have congealed into what today is the Cape Coloured Community, a vibrant culture that finds one of its greatest expressions in the Kaapse Klopse festival.

This festival has its roots in South Africa’s colonial past, when slavery was legal and part of everyday life. Abe Basson, a member of the community and a festival attendee, tells us more:

“Back in the day when the Dutch came to the country, the “whites” celebrated New Year on the 1st of January. The slaves were not allowed to celebrate it with them. So they were given the 2nd of January for their celebrations. Hence the term, Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Afrikaans for Second New Year). As the years passed, different groups from different areas started. To make it interesting they wore different coloured outfits and nowadays compete under categories such as best dress, best group song, best soloist, and best dance.”

The festival has grown immensely over the years, but it has never lost touch with its origin. These days, dozens of troupes compete for the trophies, pride, and local bragging rights. The groups consist of people of all ages:

“Ages from 2 or 3 years old to any age thereafter. As old as 80. If you can dance, sing or play an instrument, then you can partake. Most of the people are from the underprivileged areas,” Basson says.

This is one of the things that I find very inspiring. The people that make up the heart of this festival are working-class folks and below, not professional musicians. The participating groups depend on sponsorship, and it takes their immense initiative to keep the festival alive.

“The performance is taken to the streets in all the under-privileged areas, for all to see. All the uniforms are sponsored to the participants, and in some cases, that will be the only pair of shoes they have. So it’s really for the poor community by the poor community.”

The festival proper takes place as an organized procession. It starts in District Six, close to the city center and the iconic Table Mountain, in sight of the docks. It snakes its way through the city streets and down into the city bowl. The city of Cape Town’s unique geography lends itself beautifully to this festival. Closely confined by the steep, lush slopes of the mountain on one side and the glittering expanse of the Atlantic Ocean on the other, you will find an embarrassment of riches when it comes to selfie backgrounds.

The musicians themselves are clad in colourful satin suits and bowties, sequins glittering under the African sun. Led by a couple of cheerleaders swinging and tossing batons, the musicians let go of all inhibitions and fully enjoy themselves, sweat mixes with face paint over quirky expressions and broad smiles. Those who do not play instruments (mainly drums and brass) dance around, twirling multi-hued parasols for all to see.

“It’s a very jolly type of music, with loads of colour, song and dance. It is meant for that day to be a huge celebration,” Basson says.

The participating groups take the competitive element of the festival very seriously. Preparations begin months in advance. In the summer months preceding the festival, the usually quiet nights of the Bo-Kaap (Afrikaans for Upper Cape) are sometimes disrupted by boisterous voices and the rhythmic beating of drums, a precursor to the events that will soon take place.

What most attendees do not realize is that this festival continues well after New Year. Every Saturday until mid-February, the troupes compete in Athlone Stadium, a football stadium located in the area where most of the participants live. This is where one can see the real McCoy. The troupes, in full regalia, perform their chosen songs: some traditional songs, dating back to the 1800s, and some interpretations of modern pop songs to keep the crowd interested.

Last, and most importantly, we need to look at what this festival means to the individuals involved. It keeps young people from the streets and away from crime, and gives them a sense of belonging. It is a matter of tradition. And we, as spectators from whatever walk of life, have the privilege to witness this action in motion.

Where to watch:

The most cost-effective way is simply to attend the festival. Thousands of spectators line the streets every 2nd of January to watch the minstrels demonstrate their skills. And anyone can go for free to watch the 7-kilometer long procession. The demonstrations at Athlone Stadium come along with a small fee.

Fact box:

More than 13,000 minstrels in over 70 troupes parade through the city of Cape Town in their colourful garb, celebrating their culture.

Each of these troupes, some consisting of more than 1,000 members, compete under various categories, such as best-dressed team, best band, best choir, and best soloist.

The festival dates back to the mid-1800s, when slavery was abolished.

The klopse serve as a way to unite a newly democratized country and addresses social issues like crime, gangsterism, and poverty.


Cape Town's most colourful time

On the 2nd of January, the bustling streets of Cape Town, South Africa, celebrates the Cape Carnival. This music and dance festival is known as the Kaapse Klopse. Thousands of spectators watch the parade of klopse (troupes, in English) in colourful costumes, singing and dancing or playing a musical instrument.

The festival began during the colonial period. When the whites celebrated New Year on the 1st of January, the slaves were not allowed to celebrate it with them. So they were given the 2nd of January for their celebrations.

Everyone can participate in the festival, regardless of age or cultural background. The only requirement is that you can dance, sing, or play an instrument. But the people that make up the heart of the festival are working-class folks and below, not professional musicians.

The festival itself is an organized procession that starts in District Six and finishes in the city bowl. The musicians are clad in colourful satin suits and bowties, sequins.

The festival is a huge celebration with jolly music and loads of color, but it also helps to keep young people off the streets and away from crime and gives them a sense of belonging. It is a matter of tradition and the spectators are lucky to have the privilege to witness this action in motion.



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Cape Town’s most colourful time



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