Cape minstrels make light of blackface

SHAUN BENTON, Cape Town | Saturday

THOUSANDS of banjo-strumming minstrels, complete with blackface, are shrugging off the traditional derogatory label of Coon Carnival in a two-week celebration they hope will rival the annual carnivals in Rio de Janeiro, Notting Hill, and New Orleans.

The “klopse”, as they are known, compete for annual prizes, including the magnificence of their uniforms. Like the performers in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, they are grouped in clubs, each with its own uniform.

While many South Africans still talk about the Coon Carnival, a taboo racial slur, the 13 000 mostly Coloured minstrels here wear the label with pride, says Faggie Carelse, treasurer and spokesman of the Cape Town Minstrel Carnival Association.

“Whats in a name?” he asks. “A rose by any other name smells the same.”

Sheryl Ozinsky, head of Cape Town Tourism, said the name of the parade was changed to avoid negative reactions from foreign tourists.

“People here dont feel its derogatory, and neither do the coons themselves,” she said.

But Vincent Kolbe, a trustee of the District Six museum and a respected social commentator and cultural activist in Cape Town, disagrees.

He says there is little doubt as to the racist origin of the word coon, but that its acceptance among Coloureds was a matter of survival.

“It is a matter of who pays the piper,” he said. “If you were struggling, you didn’t split hairs.”

Its continued acceptance in South Africa, says Kolbe, is because “people cant get out of the apartheid mode. Weve got a long way to go down the passage of time because of what weve inherited.”

Minstrels from America first visited the Cape in 1848, 10 years after the then British colony effectively abolished slavery, but 17 years before emancipation in the United States. The American minstrels were white, their faces blackened with burnt cork.

The blackface caught on among the former slaves here, who adapted popular songs to mock their colonial masters, even parodying “Rule Britannia”. The annual parade, in which the minstrels wear brightly coloured satin uniforms and panama hats, celebrates the slaves’ emancipation.

Most of the minstrels are Afrikaans-speaking, and make up “moppies” - ditties about well known people and popular events, which amuse Capetonians but are lost on tourists.

Tourism authorities are organising the carnival this year for the first time, with the Western Cape provincial government kicking in R200_000 and corporate sponsors providing cash for the first time as well. The minstrels previously financed the carnival out of their own pockets.

A micro-economy has grown around it, keeping hundreds of tailors in business, with uniforms being ordered early in the year. - AFP

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