In Defence of Coonsby Lindokuhle Nkosi / Images by Sydelle Willow Smith / 09.01.2012
We’re all familiar with blackface. John Strausberg refers to it as “displaying blackness for the enjoyment and edification of white viewers”. The polish-darkened skin, exaggerated pink lips and ol’ “shuck and jive” routine. The happy, heel-to-toe tap-dancing darkie. You know the send-up stereotype: lazy, drunk, only responding to the Master. The Tin-Tin smiling savages, the banjo playing vaudeville coons whose existance revolved around working for white people, and entertaining them. Up until about 50 years ago, Coonery was an accepted form of entertainment; but with the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of black consciousness, came the end of Minstrel shows. In Cape Town however, 17 years after the end of apartheid, scores of Kaapse Klopse bands march to stadiums they previously were banned from, and compete for the title of “Number 1 Minstrel”.
The pictures are always pleasant. Happy and shiny. The goema and the glitter. Alcohol and food. Banjos and brothers. Members of opposing gangs united under a sequined banner. Packaged and sold to the tourists as a “must-see” and an “integral part of Cape Town culture”. “The Coon Carnival” underwent a name change, converting to the more politically correct title of “The Cape Minstrel Carnival” so as not to offend the visitors who were under the impression that coonism was discriminatory and racist. But name change aside, the festival has always been an issue of contention.
Many members of the mid-strata coloured community are of the opinion that the festival is for skollies and thugs; low-brow coloured folk who are either a) ignorant of the social connotations of such a celebration or b) too drunk to care. For three days, people camp out at various points in the city to watch the celebrations – which commence on New Years Eve with the “Nagkore”. In 1995, the Minstrels received an endorsement from the great unifier himself, Nelson Mandela, and many thought that this would end the debate concerning the legitimacy of the festival. But a trip through the archives will show that as early as the 1930’s, left-wing coloured associations have always condemned the festivities and refused to participate, finding that it glorified white stereotypes of coloured and black people. To find the source of the discontent, we need to go back to where the culture of coonism in the Cape started.
The origins are murky; myth and fable tangled and interspersed with fact. The widely recognised stories claim the carnival found its birth as a celebration of freed slaves, or conversely, slaves entertaining themselves by mocking their owners on the one day they had off, the 2nd of January. Another source alleges that the culture was borrowed from “visiting” slaves, who began arriving at the Cape after British occupation. However, no-one can explain why the tradition failed to find favour amongst the black communities in the region. But one can take a guess. And yet the carnival remains a coloured, blue-collar thing, one that is fiercely defended.
“Our songs comes from our forefather and their fathers before. They came here as slaves and they were oppressed.” Quotes an unnamed source in an old newspaper article on slavery in the Cape, I found in the District Six Museum archive. “And so the only way they could express themselves was putting into word; singing, dancing, making music, being jolly. So that the next one would think that we are happy. In the meantime, we are expressing our feelings about certain things.”
The visual similarities shared with the blackface coonism of old, however, are still unsettling. The element of pawning out, or maybe even degrading pieces of your culture for the merriment of others is one all South Africans should be w(e)ary of; especially if the role that is consistently being played out is that of the perpetual slave. After witnessing the festivities though, its difficult to maintain the highbrow stance. You get caught up in the drums and the bass, the infectiousness of the happy-clappy; and you seriously begin to doubt how this festivity could be of any harm to society.
Troupes practice and prepare for eight months, and on the 2nd of January all of Cape Town becomes their stage. The world, their witness. So yes, I held my bag a little closer to my body; and secretly wished I’d worn something a little longer. And yes, there was the odd scattered fight and the infrequent arrest; and no matter how critical I tried to be, nothing insidious seemed to lurk behind the face paint. So maybe, just maybe, once a year, it’s okay to be a coon.
*All images © Sydelle Willow Smith.