Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Second New Year’s Day

For most of us, New Year’s Day falls on January 1st.  It does so in Cape Town too.
But Cape Town has a second New Year – the only place in South Africa to do so – which, in Cape Town alone is also a public holiday.  Tweede Nuwe Jaar (Second New Year) takes place on January 2, and is a festival of parades and music by groups (klopse) of ‘coloured’ minstrels bedecked in the brightest of costumes.  (In South Africa, ‘coloured’ means of mixed blood, and Cape Town has many offspring from the transgressions of its earlier settlers – mixed marriages have never been common here and have usually been illegal, although the evidence of mixed intercourse is everywhere.)

The Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, as it is now known, was once called the Coon Carnival, and is usually still called that by the participants and spectators.  The more politically correct name came about quite recently because the politicians thought the old one was derogatory and sent the wrong message.
The Carnival is very old, starting in the mid-1800’s, and its costumes and face make-up must have been modeled after American outfits.  It is said that the festivities were quickly used by people lower down on the racial pecking order to poke fun at their masters.  Today tens of thousands minstrels hit the streets after weeks of frenzied sewing to get the costumes ready.  Not only is there music for entertainment – ukuleles and banjos in abundance - but the various groups are also competing for prizes, and the competition is intense.  Needless to say, Tweede Nuwe Jaar is a very popular tourist attraction and is one of the most popular events on Cape Town’s calendar. 

Unfortunately it is beginning to look as though the rain is going to fall on the parade.  About fifteen years ago, the provincial government removed the legislation that made January 2 a public holiday in the Cape.  Needless to say, nobody paid any attention to the politicians, and it has remained a de facto holiday.  However, it looks as though the council of Cape Town is now going to enforce the legislation – probably at the lobbying of businesses – so that January 2 will become a normal work day, forcing municipal and government workers to go to work.

The police and the city council have been increasing the pressure on the Carnival, restricting the number of people in the parades and reducing the financial subsidies previously made available.  Personally, I think these moves have a racist smell about them.  Why else would you seek to terminate one of the most popular events on the calendar, especially when Cape Town is teeming with tourists at that time of year.
I for one think that quirky events like the Coon Carnival bring colour to a city and should be encouraged.  Unfortunately there are people in power who want to take the colour (coloureds?) out of town for reasons that are opaque.  Or maybe transparent.
No matter what happens, I will always celebrate Tweede Nuwe Jaar and think fondly of the Coon Carnival.  I say “Bah humbug” to the nay-sayers.
Stan – Thursday
PS.  I lifted the pictures from various sources on the internet – there was no attribution to any of them.  I thank those who took the pictures and ask forgiveness for not getting permission to use them.


  1. A sad, sad state to take away this day. I assume it will probably happen? What a fascinating holiday, full of culture and emotion. Thank you for sharing.


  2. Interesting - if people want to celebrate why stop them? Makes no sense to me and it reeks of change for change itself.

  3. Stan - the carnival as you describe it sounds similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans before the city was allowed to die. Before Katrina, Mardi Gras was a celebration of the cultures that combined to make the Big Easy a city unlike any other in the US. Black and white, Spanish and French, Cajun and Creole brought a bit of their music, food, speech, and spectacle to the city where they then created such a spectacle that most families of all colors who could got out of NO so their children wouldn't be exposed to a modern day Bacchanalia. A friend took her sons to Disney World.

    But the city did die, and now the French Quarter is a theme park and the people are gone. Mardi Gras, now, seems cruel.

    The attitude of the politicians in Cape Town is difficult to understand. It is the rare public official who wants to destroy an event that brings in money.

    As to the name, that word creates a great deal of discomfort in the United States but if it does not do so in Cape Town, it is difficult to understand why anyone wants to mess with success.

  4. Cape town minstrel carnival is a festival that dates back to the 19th century. Cape slaves were allowed only one day off for the whole year and that was the 2nd January.