Thursday, December 10, 2009

Imbibing Cape Culture

I spent the day today, or most of it anyway, at the end of year staff party. These things are necessary – when else during the year can you get drunk in an office situation and make sexual advances on people you usually pass files to?

This one was held at a government facility on the beach at Melkbosstrand. It is a strange, unimaginative building, built right on the primary sand dune. It was never legal. Some people in the Department got into a bit of trouble in the 1990s and then the matter was forgotten, apparently. So the building remains – a real blight on the fairly rough landscape.

The theme was “West Coast” so there was lots of sand, and sea and West Coast delicacies – like Snoek (fish) on the braai (Barbecue); tripe curry; potjie kos (stew cooked in a three legged cast iron pot. There was also West Coast culture, which I saw, for the first time in full cry today.

My experience of ‘Coloured” (or mixed race) people of the Western Cape has been that they are fairly formal. “Mr” this and “Mrs” that. They are fairly conservative and fairly underexposed. They stick pretty much to themselves. (Naturally, I am talking in huge generalisations here – but this is just my observation. And of course, all generalisations are false...)

So, to see them “letting their hair down” (as my mother would have said) was an interesting experience. They jived. They danced. They did things which I think are called “party dances” where everyone does what looks like an aerobic exercise to music. Women in scarves cooked Snoek over open fires and stirred massive three legged pots. Inside, the Karaoke was reaching fever pitch as slightly flat vocal chords murdered yet another song. (Or maybe not! Maybe that is what they were supposed to sound like!)

The man managing the dance music seemed to cater for the “African” and the “Coloured” groups, in particular. The African set had lots of Kwaito and what I have come to recognise as Hip-Hop; the Coloured set had beat-y sentimental love-song type numbers. And there was an unfamiliar (to me anyway) unity between the two groups on the dance floor. Off the dance floor, the two groups sat apart from each other, in groups of their own. The whites also formed their own group. This is what life in the work environment is like. This is what Cape Town is like.

It cannot be that language is the issue. Everyone in the department understands English. And whereas not everyone may know how to speak Afrikaans or Xhosa – in the work environment, English is the way people communicate. So language cannot be the reason why people choose to sit together.

The other thing I noticed rather a lot of, was alcohol. Alcohol which appeared to have been brought from home in cooler bags – not bought by the state. It was flowing freely. Even after lunch, it was very much in evidence and I battled to understand how people would be driving in that condition. But obviously, they were going to be.

It was, however, the performer who strummed a guitar and his strange accompaniment on the accordion that gave me a taste of Cape musical culture. It was vibrant, simple and enjoyable. And all of this next to a sea that was the most extraordinary azure colour – “Kabbeljou (Cob) water” said someone. "Haai (shark) water", said another. It was astonishingly beautiful – with Robben Island in front of us and Table Mountain to the left. It was a celebratory day I had, for sure. Just a pity it was, as is usual here, a culturally divided one.

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