The ‘abnormality’ of Cape Town’s traditional carnival

Breaking with the usual media conversation about the carnival that recalls Cape Town’s slave past.

Cape Town Carnival. Image credit and copyright John Edwin Mason, used with permission, not for reuse.

The month of January has a peculiar character for the city of Cape Town in South Africa. It is peak carnival season. Yet, in this time of celebration, public discourse about carnival conveys a sense that it is abnormal, as if it does not meet expectations; that it is both a laudable tradition of the poorest in the city, and yet also something distasteful, to be tolerated at best. This enigmatic feeling says something about our racialized past and complicated present. The traditional carnival, or klopse, to use a vernacular term—often casually associated in public discussion with petty gangsters, organized crime, and the ever-controversial blackface—remains profoundly abnormal, out of sync with the city’s fashionable global image. It offers neither a wholesome image of South Africa as a rainbow nation (the klopse are associated with the city’s coloured working class), nor does it represent a notion of “traditional”Africa.

The klopse seems to diminish in the eyes of the city each year, and of late has a rival in the more hipster and corporate-friendly Cape Town Carnival in March every year (in which the “rainbow nation” is the central motif). Each year, after negotiations that are often laden with tension, the city lays on municipal services, such as security and traffic control, while the traditional carnival bodies march through the former neighborhood of District Six, and onto the main downtown strip of Wale Street.

The media conversation about this klopse carnival follows a familiar pattern. It gets caught up in, and perhaps even abets, the seasonal animosity between sections of the carnival community on one hand, and the city authorities on the other. Cape Town is indeed a city at odds with its cultural present and past. To make sense of this, it is worth thinking not just about Cape Town’s global present, but also its global past.

The city’s traditional carnival is a touchstone for several indicators of the past and present: its historic relationships to the Indian Ocean and Atlantic worlds, to its indigenous population and to the fact that its local economy was built on the import of slaves from elsewhere and of black immigration from other parts of the colonial imperial world of the 19th century—something it shares with Atlantic carnival cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Havana, and New Orleans. And like these settings, it is the slave economy that Cape Town has in common with these places. It is implicated in making race part of the lived social reality for people.

There are, in fact, several distinct carnivalesque scenes in Cape Town: including the klopse, the Community Carnival, the UCT and Stellenbosch student Rag, the black sport-aligned “Mardi Gras” of the 1970s, and the Mother City Queer Project to name a few. This array of carnivalesque networks itself tells a story of the racial divide. The ones that are marked traditional occur in a set with the klopse, Malay Choirs, and Christmas bands at their core, but will also include carnivalesque calendar events, such as Guy Fawkes, the peak of the social langarm (slow dance) dancing season. They are best understood in a dynamic relation between these forms, not isolated from each other as we tend to discuss them. But I will restrict myself to the klopse and its relation to the rest of the city. The klopse registers as a local phenomenon with only passing interest to international visitors or observers. Indeed, the 2020 klopse season is now in full swing. There will likely be pronouncements about the city’s jazz history, which will make vague references to its carnival tradition, but this relation is a troubled one. The carnival and modern Cape Town are radically out of step with each other.

Arguably, we need better tools to make sense of these issues, to escape the inarticulacy that klopse seems to trigger, the sense that it is abnormal and antiquarian, the impasse of identity politics to which it gives rise. Beyond a well-worn set of tropes about klopse’s roots in slave emancipation, colouredness, and tradition, we don’t seem to know how to talk about the klopse carnival’s sensory fabric, its capacity to excite, its traditions, its revelry in beauty and ugliness, its penchant for caricature. Klopse—with its associations with the hurtful manipulation of blackface in the Apartheid years—remains an unspeakable language. No newspaper or radio station is at hand to capture, beyond generalized and clichéd terms, the social investment in the competition, the excitement it generates in local neighborhoods, the drama about colors, songs, who will win this year, and so on. There is no shared material history or language to guide public discourse: the comic inflection in Cape Afrikaans, the ambiguities of cross-dressing and Cape “jive talk.”

We might say that the klopse carnival has become part of the natural racial order. We have conflated carnivalesque traditions with markers of race so that the two are indistinguishable. In this scheme, for example, colouredness talks with a funny, inflected Afrikaans accent. These are stereotypes produced in a discourse that has now come to represent the natural state of colouredness. Part of the tragedy of carnival is that, through a complex process, Apartheid’s bureaucracy, planning, and pageantry successfully appropriated its tropes as markers of the coloured race. It is no accident that you will not find the fabric of carnival embroidered in the literary traditions of the country or the region. Very few poets or novelists have engaged with the comic sensibility of the Cape apart from the poet Adam Small, Rehana Rossouw’s writings or the work rapper CPT Youngsta. Yet, it reverberates in a new hip hop generation in much more serious tones.

Even though it is now understood as such, there really is nothing “natural” or inevitable about this condition. Carnival’s everyday practice transpires under the veil, inside local communities despite, if not because of, indifference from the rest of the city. Tourism events generally play with the picturesque, they haul out a small troupe to play folk forms such as the songs “Welcome to Cape Town,” or “Daar Kom die Alibama”—the latter a song about a mid-19th century confederate ship that visited at the Cape with blackface entertainers in tow—to add some quaint local flavor for tourism events.

When the big showcase happens in the city’s downtown streets, the shops and restaurants proximity to the march close or take precautionary measures to shield their customers. It seems to be regarded as an imposition rather than something to participate in or celebrate. The two economies—one traditional, archaic and quaint, the other global and sophisticated—seem to be essentially incompatible. Over and above the indifference from business and local media, almost none of the city’s artists, galleries, institutions, and very few of its musicians have any relation to what may arguably be the creative event with the most inclusive, and richest history in the city—one that is intertwined with Cape Town’s unique cultural value propositions in language, music and other spheres. This is not simply to blame, but to point out what has become so obvious as to be “natural.” Yet it in the language of the non-racial sports movement of yesteryear, carnival reminds us that we pursue normal activities in a still profoundly abnormal society.

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