Tweede Nuwe Jaar sparks Black Face vs White Face debate and Helen Zille thinks it’s interesting

2020-01-06 04:45 - Selene Brophy
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The Cape Town Street Parade - previously known as the Cape Town Carnival or 'Tweede Nuwejaar' – is a colourful spectacle that transforms the inner city of Cape Town into a vibrant hub of song and dance.

The 2020 parade featured 42 troupes, compromising approximately 10 000 individual performers for one of Africa’s biggest cultural events. The groups marched from Hanover Street in District Six, along Darling Street past City Hall and the Grand Parade before taking on a route that came to an end in the Bo-Kaap.

Yet, this year the colours have been distilled to black and white. How very South African of us.

The Klopse (minstrel clubs) have become a must-see for tourists to the city (much like the allure of Brazil's Rio Carnival, admittedly on a smaller scale) with an eclectic celebration of the new year performed mostly by working-class, Cape coloureds.

The event, however, is heavily rooted in the colonial, slave-trade past of the Mother City.

Dating back more than a century, the tradition began when slaves were given the 'day off' and allowed to celebrate 'freely'. Usually held on the 2nd of January, this year's event took place on the 4th of January as the sunset of 2 January 2020 coincided with the Friday Jum’ah prayers of the Muslim community. 

Similarly, many parts of the city - Bo-Kaap in particular - are steeped in Cape Malay and Muslim cultural traditions.

SEE: Bo-Kaap and gentrification: When your home becomes a tourist attraction

Raising the Black vs White face debate was twitter user Brian Adams who wrote, “I see ‘White Face’ is rampant in the Street Parade but ‘Black Face’ is a crime? How does that work?”  

And while this might have just been another tweet, Democratic Alliance (DA) federal council chairperson Helen Zille (notorious for colonial context twars) weighed in on the thread calling it an “interesting question”.


The tweet has seen a number of comments on either side of the debate.

Another twitter user commented, “No it’s not. It’s a stupid question. And you know why so I don’t know why you tolerate this kind of lazy thinking on your timeline.

"It's also amused me over the years at Xhosa White Face one ever had a problem with that. Won't be long before charcoal face masks are banned," tweeted another.

South African suggests the 'white face' painting of minstrels was inluenced by a US troupe called the Christy’s Minstrels that visited the Cape at the end of the 19th century. 

"The ways in which New Year was celebrated in Cape Town, especially among coloured people, was significantly influenced by American ‘blackface’ minstrelsy." 

“Made up of white comedians, singers and musicians, they would impersonate African American slaves from the south during their performances and use burnt cork to blacken their faces. They also wore very eccentric clothing such as colourful tailcoats when they impersonated the more stylish societal figures and rags as their impersonations turned to rural slaves. Participants were referred to as coons, a racist term which referred to the inferiority of the slaves."  

The history of the carnival has seen its name go through a series changes, as it grappled with its status to help preserve a cultural practice of the Cape and embody the cultural diversity of South Africa - but in a way that didn’t perpetuate the oppressive connotations of our colonial past.

In stark contrast, 'black face' has mostly been used in a derogatory manner to humiliate black people and comparing ‘white face’ to it, within this context, is simply not the same.

READ: From Cape Town to Madagascar: The top African festivals and events to plan around in 2020 

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