It has become for me the saddest day of the year, any year, which no amount of bright face paint, tailored outfits, twirling umbrellas or “moppies” can assuage.
Tweede Nuwejaar – marked informally as a public holiday in the Western Cape except when January 1 falls on a Sunday and the entire country enjoys the holiday on the 2nd.
More than any attempt by the state to regulate how we mark or commemorate important dates in our country’s history, this non-holi-day causes me to pause. Even for one who must only know these things vicariously through the recorded hurt of forbears, who can have no conscious memory of enslavement or dispossession, of losing oneself and god’s gifted place on this earth to a more powerful – or perhaps more devious – conqueror, Tweede Nuwejaar connotes immense pain.
The Minstrels who take to the streets of Cape Town each year to “celebrate” Tweede Nuwejaar, can do little to mitigate the inglorious history underpinning this day. On the contrary, it is precisely because the Cape today still reflects the injustice, the inequality, the racism of the colonial era that I find little to celebrate.
The tradition of poor black people marking Tweede Nuwejaar, I understand, is rooted in the era of slavery, when slaves at the Cape had to work on January 1 in service of their masters’ and mistresses’ celebration of the new year. Slaves were allowed out, could dress up, celebrate, parade in the street, on the second day of the new year. The administrators and owners out of the ‘immense goodness of their hearts’ allowed for this fleeting moment of “freedom”, as if that could balance out the inhumanity of treating (racially different) people as non-persons, alienating them from their traditional communities and ways of living – whether close to the Cape or the other side of the continent and globe, disrespecting family ties, keeping them in bondage, treating them as commodities, stripped down in every aspect, raping and abusing them.
It is not easily acknowledged how, after the legal emancipation of slaves, the racism inherent in the practice of slavery, the commercial advantages afforded to slave-owners and the disadvantages imposed on slaves, transmuted over 200 years into new systems of social, political and commercial control, formal and legal.
Up to the present Tweede Nuwejaar: Poor, black people may have the legal right to live in the Cape, but that presence is tolerated for as long as it plays into the needs of white capitalists, landowners, factory owners, professionals, small business owners, mercantilists of every kind, household employers, and the political administrators who support their rights often at the expense of workers and unemployed.
So minstrels marching on the street for one day is fine, as long as it’s firmly regulated. Thousands of people going onto the beaches on another day is more intrusive but bearable as long as they don’t make a habit of it at other times. Much better if black people, once they’ve delivered their labour during the year, shrunk off to the margins of the city, out of sight of the white landed, business, professional classes who believe living here is their God-given heritage. It helps when there is a political administrator, a premier, who does not even pay lip service to the painful history of this city but is willing to defend today’s racist acts on beaches and in restaurants and who engages in victim-blaming: get over yourselves, you’re being unnecessarily sensitive, she says.
I wish Tweede Nuwejaar can end, and the people of this city, all the people of this city, can equally and justly enjoy the benefits of living here, share in the rewards of hard work, revel in their access to land and space, heal their souls, celebrate their lives, their freedom, their spirits, every day of the year. Every year.