Bringing a carnival to life

2011-04-05 00:00

I CAN say, without a shadow of a doubt, that organising the Cape Town Carnival has been the most complex and difficult job I have had. Just before I took up the position of CEO, I was in charge of fan parks and other social legacy matters for the Western Cape Province, in the 2010 Fifa World Cup. In comparison, it was a doddle.

In the World Cup, I didn’t need to dress the participants. I didn’t need to design their costumes. I didn’t need to bus them to a central place and then put their clothes on them and put make-up on their faces. I didn’t need to feed them. I didn’t need to get them all to the bottom of Long Street at the same time, and in order. I didn’t need to get them to practise 10 different dance moves, which they all needed to do together. I didn’t need to build nine huge floats and arrange for volunteers from three universities to push them and arrange many different music genres to sound from them. In addition to all of that, I didn’t need to manage 60 000 spectators who were watching them.

For the World Cup, it was easy. All I needed to do was set up a big screen and a couple of fences, and sit back and watch.

But the truth is that something fundamental happened for Cape Town in the World Cup. The people, of what must be the most divided city in South Africa­, were somehow given permission to enjoy each other and swan around in funny costumes and parade up and down the streets in the middle of the night. The crowds were completely diverse. There was barely a person in Cape Town who was not positively touched by the spirit of it all, in some way.

And the genius of it all was that you really didn’t need to like football. You didn’t even need to understand the rules of the game. All you needed to do was enjoy yourself, and enjoy other people enjoying themselves. The parading around went on regardless.

On March 19, 2011, the carnival happened in Cape Town. Volunteers, all 2 500 of them, from communities as diverse as Strand, Grabouw, Hout Bay, Langa and Constantia paraded down Long Street. They were cheered on by a crowd of 60 000 people — undoubtedly the most diverse since the World Cup. They danced. They pranced. They strutted in gorgeous costumes. There were birds, creatures from the sea, costumes lit up with LED lights and massive costumes worn by flag-bearers from Brazil. It was an extraordinary sight.

As each float went by, the crowd cheered and clapped. The energy of it all was extraordinary. After the parade was over, the barriers were taken down and DJ Fresh was let loose on the crowd to weave his particular kind of magic. He tweeted that it was the best gig he had done in his life. For one, spectacular night, Cape Town re-experienced the joy and unity of the World Cup. It was an evening of real legacy.

For me, the wonder of the event was in the preparations for it. I saw, in the weeks and months of preparation, such a unity of purpose among the participants — such extraordinary dedication — such amazing patience and good grace. Because I wanted large groups doing the same thing, many of the cultural groups were forced to work with other groups from different areas — people they had never met before and would probably never work with again. The result was an extraordinary demonstration of social cohesion among a diverse range of communities.

The same was true of the crowd. It was as mixed as one can possibly get — in terms of race, in terms of gender and in terms of age. And the same was true of the parade itself.

The youngest child was 13. The oldest performer, an astonishing 85. There was Muslim, there was Christian, there was Hindu and there was Jewish. It was an amazing thing.

In Brazil, they have one religion, one language­ and one beat. That is certainly not what we are.

Here in Cape Town, in Africa, we celebrate something directly opposite. We celebrate­ our great and beautiful diversity. That is who we are. And carnival is the showcase for it all.

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