Cape Town's colorful Second New Year has origins in slave era

Tweede Nuwe Jaar, or Second New Year, is a centuries-old party that traditionally kicks off on January 2 and inspires revelers to form "klopses," or troupes, and compete for recognition.
Written by Dave Mayers, Correspondent, Johannesburg

Cape Town's New Year's party spills over into the second day of the year, every year, without fail. A celebration born of struggle, Tweede Nuwe Jaar, or Second New Year, is a parade that allows Capetonians to honor their past as much as they look toward the future, while marching through the streets bejeweled and bedazzled in a centuries-old commemoration of their culture.

While the event traditionally kicks off on January 2, it often continues in small pockets throughout the city for the next few weekends. Revelers organize themselves into "klopses," or troupes and compete for recognition throughout Cape Town.

The annual tradition is seen as a way to keep young people away from drugs and violence. Many of the parade's marchers call the Cape Flats home. The rough neighborhood southeast of Cape Town is one of the most dangerous areas in the country, with large gangs and high unemployment. There is a fear that some of the gang culture has infiltrated parts of Tweede Nuwe Jaar.

"You will find gangsters in the troupes, but it doesn't mean that they're going to have gang fights. People from all walks of life will join the minstrels and all you need to do is control it," community organizer Faidel Gasant told the Mail & Guardian.

On the surface, the parade looks like a giant, African version of Philadelphia's annual Mummer's Parade. Philly's mummers are mostly working class Irish and Italians who practice for months for their New Year's Day march down Second Street.

Marching a day later, the revelers in Cape Town make their way from the city's historic District 6 to the Bo-Kaap section of the "Mother City."

The tradition is said to have originated shortly after the Dutch founded Cape Town in 1652 as a resupply port for its ships headed to the Far East. The ships brought Dutch settlers to the Cape of Good Hope, but they also delivered slaves from Madagascar, India and Dutch colonies in Southeast Asia.

Once on the Cape, the roughly 63,000 slaves intermingled with the similarly oppressed local Khoisan people to form a unique, vibrant culture on the southern tip of Africa. Celebrations similar to today's Tweede Nuwe Jaar were said to take place during the New Year's festivities, a time when Dutch masters went on vacation, leaving their slaves to their own devices.

Troupe coordinator Moegamat Rushdien Sardien told The New Age, "The tradition of the ‘klopse' (troops or teams) come from the time of the slaves. The slaves were only let out once a year, and if you only get out once a year, you'll go crazy. People jumped, danced and could do what they wanted."

But the history of Cape Town's carnival also shares more than just a passing resemblance to similar American traditions. The marching bands, the glitter, and even many of the troupe names are influenced by American minstrel shows that toured South Africa in the late 19th century. Many of the parade-goers call themselves minstrels, and some of the klopse names are straight out of the turn of the century.

Groups like the Shoprite Pennsylvanians Crooning Minstrels, made up of Capetonians with no American affiliations, have been marching in Tweede Nuwe Jaar for decades.

Under Apartheid, many of these troupes went underground. District 6, known as one of the most racially integrated neighborhoods in the city, was demolished. Its inhabitants were officially classified as "Blacks," "Indians," or mixed-race "Coloureds" and moved into segregated neighborhoods. The traditional route for the parade was closed off to nonwhites, and many of the troupes made do in their own neighborhoods. The Sea Point Swifts troupe relocated to Bontehuwel, a mixed-race township east o the city.

With democracy came official state support of the Tweede Nuwe Jaar. This year alone, the state allocated more than $450,000 for the festival. While the figure is still well short of the estimated $1.7 million that it takes to host the parade, the funding is a welcome change from decades of official antagonism towards the carnival.

Today the Department of National Arts and Culture works with the Cape Town Minstrels Carnival Association to back the parade.

Yet some who are involved in the parade itself think that the money put aside for it could be better spent on costumes or instruments. Lily Ford, owner of the Heideveld Entertainers, told the Mail & Guardian she thought the city spent its budget on security, in fear of the criminal elements within the klopses.

"They do fund the march on January 2," Ford said. "But the money is for disaster management, not for building up the troupes throughout the year."

To Ford, the Tweede Nuwe Jaar is an opportunity for underserved communities throughout Cape Town. "This is about income generation. This is about supporting our communities in places with high unemployment. This is about setting a good example," Ford said.  "But most of all, it is about tradition."

Photos: Cape Town Minstrels Carnival Association

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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