Cape Town - My father was a Malay choir captain of the Elsies River Singkoor. The epicenter for all team activities was our garage and driveway, and from June onwards our home would be a hive of activity as the team members came for weekly team meetings, rehearsals, costume fittings and socialis ing.
Men with usually limited financial resources would somehow find the money to pay off their “gear” in instalments over the year. Some have even been known to sell off their gold teeth to make payment! So there would always be a last-minute rush of guys coming in to make that final payment just in time to hit the streets on New Year’s Eve.
While the vibrancy of it all may make it appear chaotic from the outside, these festivals are complex and sophisticated operations, testimony to the organic organizational abilities of our communities.
Traditionally the Christmas Choirs would march on 24 December, Malay Choirs on the 31st and the Minstrels on January 2 (also known as Tweede Nuwe Jaar). As we headed into December, there would always be crescendo of frantic final activity: last- minute adjustments to uniforms, booking buses, musician line-ups, instruments and food, amongst others.
A complexity of arrangements needed to act in perfect orchestra to ensure that teams from all over the Cape Flats arrived in the city at set times and marched in agreed sequences. This is how the nights would proceed: a steady stream of teams marching through the city streets.
All of this is an intrinsic part of my generation’s childhood memories and identity. As a child, I didn’t know the historical roots of this carnival – it was just a night of pure unadulterated joy: How often do you as a child from a poor community get to sing and dance alongside thousands of strangers in a city that is otherwise forbidden to you despite it having been built by your enslaved ancestors?
In a post-apartheid SA, the magnitude of such a moment may be lost on us: we were free for one night in a city centre that was otherwise off-limits, or severely restricted to us. To our parents who lived through the worse of apartheid’s exigencies, it was a brief one-night reprieve from the harsh realities of life under apartheid. We can’t even begin to imagine what this night represented in the lives of our enslaved ancestors who were permitted only this one day of freedom per year.
The true history of the carnival I learned only in my adulthood, thanks to activist historians such as Patric Tariq Mellet and the late Achmad Davids. It was of course never taught to us in our apartheid schools, and to my knowledge, sadly still isn’t taught in schools today.
It is unfortunate that most of those who keep this festival alive today still do not know the powerful historical roots. An uninformed liberal media sadly keeps the minstrels mistakenly locked into a narrative of “the jollie coloureds’ singing for white masters. They entirely miss the power of us singing in celebration of our collective resilience, in celebration of our freedoms.
The logistics involved with pulling of this carnival is immense: clothing, food, transport, child care, and not forgetting the choreography involved in the fabulous singing and dance moves.
While it is mostly men (although this has thankfully started to change now) you will see walking on the streets, there is a virtual army of women who work tirelessly to pull this festival off on an annual basis. It is the labour of women which subsidizes and makes possible a festival of this scale.
Think about it, since the 1800s, it's been poor communities who have sustained this festival through ingenuity and resources. The first significant state support for the carnival came only in 2004, when the ANC last ruled the province. That period marked the last years of a festival to scale: record spectator numbers and comprehensive logistical support.
Importantly, rather than pitting them against each other as being done today, there was significant investment in unifying the various boards and skills development of its leaders. The provincial administration at the time had a clear political vision of affirming the diversity of communities in a highly racially polarized setting.
There were investments in all the t eams: Malay Choirs, Minstrels/Klopse, Christmas Bands, and Township Choirs. I nvestment in the latter was specifically aimed at ending African marginalization given the history of the province as a “Coloured Labour Preference” area.
This year the Malay choirs were forced to march on December 30 instead of the actual O ujaarsaand (New Year's Eve), because the city administration had inexplicable decided to move Nuwe Jaar (New Year's).
Confusion was rampant in our communities, with many not knowing when the carnival was set to take place. Imagine the audaciousness of a city administration to simply move New Y ear's Eve to another night without any kind of explanation?
So this year we went to the city on December 30 to watch the teams. It was a sad and depressing affair with the carnival now a shadow of its former self: The teams are smaller than they have ever been and the number of teams authorised to march much reduced, with minimal logistical support from the city.
Most devastatingly, arguably the heart of the carnival, the people-lined streets are no more as a result of the city outlawing camping on the city sidewalks! As recently as three years ago, people where still allowed to camp on the city streets during carnival time. Entire Cape Flats families were camped out on the pavements. Notwithstanding the obvious logistical challenges posed by this, it was still great to see people feeling free and owning (albeit for one day only) their city built by our ancestors.
Over time the Democratic Alliance has led a sustained attack on a tradition that dates back centuries. Every year the onslaught takes new forms and the teams get tied down in expensive and prolonged court battles.
The attack has been so clever that we get lost in the minutiae of the battle. Every year the conflict with the city is focused on something new: the march routes, stadium allocation, which minstrel board will be accredited (to the exclusion of others), the unilateral changing of dates and most recently a name change as the Tweede Nuwejaar has unilaterally been renamed by the city as the Cape Town Street Parade.
The DA has also most skillfully weaponised state bureaucracy in this onslaught to devastating effect: applications for permits to march lodged in March were only responded to in August. This was followed by further administrative acrobatics in having the event declared a medium security risk, so effectively eliminating the possibility of the Green Point stadium as a venue, effectively restricting the stadium events to the Cape Flats.
The battlefield is patently unequal: poor unorganised working class communities on the one hand, pitted against a well-resourced city, equipped with an army of lawyers and, of course, our tax money to finance the very battles against us.
Every year we get lost in the miniature of the battles, even as we know that next year it will be about something else, but the ultimate effect will be an erosion of our centuries-old tradition over time.
What is happening in Cape Town under DA rule is a de facto cultural genocide. A deliberate and calculated killing off of a long-standing working-class tradition of the descendants of enslaved peoples dating back to the colonial-era in the 1600s.
Right now, the battle lines are drawn between communities and the DA, with the city exploiting divisions between the different minstrel boards to great effect. If it continues in this way, this festival will likely die a quiet death over time and DA councillor JP Smith’s grand vision to “professionalize and commercialize” the carnival will effectively kill its soul and delink it from its important history.
* Fatima Shabodien is a social justice activist who grew up on the Cape Flats.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.