17 January 2013

South Africa: Muslim Judicial Council Fatwa Against Minstrels Highlights Cape Town's Class Problems

Photo: Melissa Britz
Cape Town Minstrels

analysis

The Muslim Judicial Council (MJC) fatwa against the annual New Year's festival by Cape Town's minstrels and 'Malay' choirs has thrown the city's ever present class and race problems back into the spotlight.

The fatwa prohibits Muslims from participating in the minstrel troupes, or watching the minstrels - on the grounds that "it is generally degrading and undignified for Muslims to dance around in public with painted faces and colourful clothing".

However, it is not clear why the fatwa was only introduced last year, after many years of the carnival taking place in much the same colourful form as it does today.

The fatwa also forbids members of the 'Malay' choirs, in which many Muslim people participate, from letting loose during "Tweede Nuwe Jaar" or second new year - specifically from "jumping about" in the streets, dancing, and using "unsavoury language".

According to the MJC, Muslims can only participate in the Malay choirs "on condition that one ... does not allow one to be degraded or walk around in an undignified manner through the streets, or to tolerate mixed gatherings."

But since the choirs and the minstrels' events take place at the same time, it is hardly possible for choir members to avoid "mixed gatherings".

American-based University of Virginia history professor John Mason, also the author of a book on the Cape carnival, described the fatwa as "middle-class hostility to Carnival/working-class autonomy". Mason previously wrote that the Cape Town middle class, both Coloured and White have displayed class and race prejudice against the minstrels, whose "working-class hijinks" they find offensive.

Striking at the root of the problem in Cape Town, which is that the economy and access to opportunities are still controlled by powerful White figures, Mason wrote that "middle-class Coloured people ... feared that they would be tainted by the behaviour of working-class minstrels, which has sometimes seemed to confirm the negative stereotypes that many Whites hold about Coloureds - that they are clownish, simple-minded, and given to drink".

The MJC's fatwa email quoted by the Muslim community radio station, Voice of the Cape, also bears this out. Referring to the minstrels by their derogatory apartheid-era name of "coons", the MJC complained that while the Malay choirs had met with them to take advice on correct religious behaviour during Tweede Nuwe Jaar, the so-called "coons" had been unwilling to do the same. Yet there is no reason why the minstrels, who are not all Muslim, would be obliged to submit to the MJC's control over what is not even a Muslim event.

The fatwa has also thrown into stark relief the hypocrisy with which Cape Town's "working-class Coloureds" are treated.

Cape Town's businesses and the DA city administration benefit immensely from the tourist attraction that the minstrel and choir parades have become. The DA uses the annual event to claim extra 'diversity kudos' for the city they run, yet recently awarded a tender to run the carnival to an outside events management company, overlooking the minstrels' association's own bid, which was reportedly lower than the winning bid.

There have been other angry battles between the DA and the minstrels over the past years, with the city at times withdrawing funding, seeking to change the route of the carnival, and trying to forbid the minstrels and choirs from ending their event at the new Cape Town stadium.

Last week, DA councilor Dave Bryant even claimed (according to a recent Mail & Guardian report) that it was difficult for the city to support the event because it was "very heavily associated" with violent gangs.

In this sense, the DA is much like any other conservative party in that it celebrates indigenous culture only when it is expedient to do so. New Zealand's ruling party, the conservative mainly White National party similarly puts indigenous Maori traditional performance art - the kapa haka - on display at important events like the 2011 rugby world cup, even while continuing to block Maori land claims, underfund Maori schools and otherwise sideline Maori from their rightful place in society.

Opinions have always been divided on the minstrels. In his "Chronicles of the Kaapse Klopse", French academic Denis-Constant Martin traces describes how the minstrels were criticized during apartheid by the "Coloured leftist" Non-European Unity Movement who said their "wild gyrations and inane cacophonies" were a "welcome sight to slave-drivers". However, the different subjective opinions on the minstrels have nothing to do with the fatwa, which is a purely religious matter.

Since South Africa is now the most unequal country in the world, it is always important to remember slavery and that the region's wealthy elite - and indeed, all White Western Cape residents - owe their money and privilege to the slaves. This is particularly true of the wealthy vineyard owners, some of whom still treat their current workforce little better than slaves. This is the reason for the ongoing farm workers' strike.

But more than that, the minstrels are contesting attempts by religious and political leaders who feel offended by their performances and are seeking to use different excuses to block them from taking over the streets. The minstrels' parade has become a clear symbol of the ongoing socio-cultural contestation in Cape Town.

Majavu is a writer concentrating on the rights of workers, oppressed people, the environment, anti-militarism and what makes a better world. She is currently studying for a Masters Degree in New Zealand.

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