Chapter 16 “Dis Nie Myne Nie, Dis Nie Joune Nie” or Kramer and Petersen’s Ghoema: Inscribing the Past, Claiming the Present?

In: Forays into Contemporary South African Theatre
Author: Paula Fourie


In 2005, musical theatre co-writers Taliep Petersen and David Kramer brought Ghoema to the stage. This musical engages with the early history of the Cape to demonstrate the unacknowledged contribution of slaves to the cultural life of Cape Town. In this, it relies heavily on a body of Afrikaans folk songs shared by both coloured and white Afrikaans-speakers. Like Afrikaans, these songs are the result of processes of creolization, created in the painful and violent encounter between slave and slave master in colonial Cape Town. This essay is concerned with examining whether what is regarded as a staging of creolization can contribute to exploring the contemporary identities of slave descendants, the vast majority of whom were classified as “coloured” or “Cape Malay” during apartheid and marginalized by the ruling government.

In the opening scene of Ghoema,1 David Kramer and Taliep Petersen’s last musical, its two young male narrators, Hot and Tot, immediately break the fourth wall, drawing the audience in by rapping:


With these opening words, the agenda of Ghoema is unequivocally established: to explore the past of South Africa’s coloured population with all eyes focused firmly on their present. More specifically, in the words of one of its co-writers, Kramer, it would do so by attempting “to re-imagine the fact and the fiction, to rewrite the history of early Afrikaans music and to acknowledge the nameless people who created and contributed to it.”3 Central to this agenda is the evocation of the ghoema drum and its eponymous rhythm, unique South African musical creations formed in the cultural melting pot that was colonial Cape Town. Considered characteristic of much Western Cape folk music, the ghoema beat, whose rhythmical formation can be reproduced on a wide range of instruments, has been theorized by Denis-Constant Martin as the most recognizable musical signifier of Cape Town, even as its “unifying creole pulse.”4

In keeping with the instruction to “sit back, relax,” Ghoema tells its story in 120 minutes of song and dance, interweaving spoken dialogue and humorous sections of rap with a number of original compositions and a large body of folk songs. From the perspective of a present-day New Year’s Eve, it tells of Portuguese and Dutch oceanic trade leading to the establishment of a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope, the importation of slaves by the Dutch and the growth of a slave society at the Cape, replete with a large body of folk songs that developed on its farms. It tells of eventual British rule, slave emancipation in 1834, and the impact of visiting figures such as Frans de Jonge from the Netherlands and Orpheus McAdoo from the usa on the growth of the present-day Cape Coon Carnival and Cape Malay Choir traditions.5 Throughout, even during the sections of rap, the use of acoustic instruments such as the ghoema drum, tambourine, guitar, banjo and piano-accordion combine to create a folk-music tapestry. Musically as well as thematically, Afrikaans folk songs occupy a prominent place in the musical.

At the outset, I had intended my research on Ghoema to focus on the musical’s combined use of two anachronistic musical idioms. I conceived of these as, on the one hand, an established body of Afrikaans folk songs, and on the other, the vibrant tradition of Western Cape rap with its historically “strongly activist orientation.”6 I was excited by the thought that these idioms, separated by different historiographical narratives, could inscribe the past and simultaneously claim the present. Put differently, in asserting a new place in the national memory for coloured South Africans through the combined use of these musical genres, Ghoema could also enable the articulation of new present-day identities for those designated “coloured” by the apartheid government. In this way, the lines given to the narrators Hot and Tot in Ghoema would echo the message rap associated with hip hop nationalism in the United States in the 1990s (the origin of the Western Cape rap aesthetic), concerned as it was with a “rethinking of the past in an effort to empower the present struggle for black liberation.”7

Yet as soon as I began researching these idioms and their history, I realized first of all that to call them “anachronistic” was fundamentally misleading. Doing so would deny the place of these practices in the present soundscape of South Africa. The ghoemaliedjies, nederlandsliedjies and other Afrikaans folk songs that form the backbone of Ghoema are very much alive, continually being reinvented as “tradition” finds ways of asserting its importance in the here and now. Furthermore, as I watched the musical over and over again, I also began to question the most basic assertion that I had wanted to make, namely that by inscribing the past, Ghoema was also claiming the present. From the vantage point of present-day South Africa, this gradually seemed to constitute a grossly exaggerated claim, one based on a false and fast-dissipating sense of national optimism. It is one I no longer wish to make. Instead, Ghoema became a catalyst for fundamental questions about the performance of creolization or, as Zimitri Erasmus has described this dynamic process in the context of South Africa, of “cultural creativity under conditions of marginality.”8

Ghoema!, as the first manifestation of this musical was titled, opened at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (kknk) in March 2005 as a seventy minute stage piece that explored the origins of Afrikaans as well as the contribution of former slaves to Afrikaans folk music. After a successful staging at the festival, it was reworked, extended to two hours and renamed Ghoema. Under the direction of David Kramer and the musical direction of Taliep Petersen, this reworked version opened in Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre on 16 November 2005, starring Loukmaan Adams, Munthir Dullisear, Zenobia Kloppers, Gary Naidoo, Carmen Maarman and Danny Butler, and with a band consisting of Butler, Gammie Lakay, Howard Links, Solly Martin and Charlie Rhode.9 The set design was by Kramer, lighting design by Kramer together with Gert du Preez, and costume design by Jesse Kramer.10

Ghoema was the seventh and final musical by lyricist and librettist Kramer and composer and arranger Petersen, two men whose working relationship served as an all-too rare example of interracial collaboration during the apartheid years. Kramer, an English-speaker originally from Worcester, was designated white by the apartheid government, while Petersen was an Afrikaans-speaker from Cape Town’s infamous District Six designated “Cape Malay,” a category subsumed under the broader category of “coloured.” Over the previous twenty years, starting with District Six: The Musical in 1987, they had written six musicals together – Fairyland (1990), Poison (1992), Crooners (1992), Kat and the Kings (1995) and Klop Klop (1996) – all which were in some way rooted in the musical idioms, social contexts or landscapes associated with South Africa’s coloured population.11 Ghoema was no exception. In fact, it could be called the musical that most directly grappled with past and present realities of being coloured, placing center-stage the cultural products – language, music and food – embraced by large sections of this community.

As a racial construct eventually codified in the apartheid government’s Population Registration Act, the term “coloured” has always been a notoriously nebulous one, even to the hegemonic powers themselves. During apartheid, it was used to lump together into a single racial category (albeit one that later acknowledged several subgroups) diverse individuals that included persons of mixed race; the native Khoikhoi and San, the descendants of political convicts exiled to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company, and a significant number of slaves brought mainly from the Indonesian Archipelago. Although the term “coloured” has outright derogatory connotations elsewhere, in South Africa it has a complex history that has included both its rejection as a racist label and its claiming as a self-referential term.12 I employ it here without any qualifying appendages, both to emphasize personal agency in identity creation and from the perspective that the use of politically sanitized terminology has the potential to undermine restitutive work precisely because it strips words of those connotations that inform the contexts of such work. Moreover, while the continued use of racial signifiers in contemporary South Africa is lamentable from the perspective of what was fought for in the name of non-racialism, I take the stance that an artificial levelling of experiences through language in contemporary post-post-apartheid South Africa is at least equally problematic (if not more so), considering the continuities of apartheid-era deprivations and patterns of privilege.

The complexity of these issues is underlined in an interview that I conducted with jazz pianist and composer Paul Hanmer who played in Petersen’s dance band of the early 1980s, Sapphyre. Speaking in the context of the historical visibility of Cape Coon Carnival practices in Cape Town, Hanmer remembers that his father regarded this popular portrayal of people of colour as “derogatory” and expected him to “step away from that.” As he muses on what he had been taught in his family context, telling perspectives emerge on what it might mean to be coloured:

You know, just because we find ourselves behind the coloured fence it doesn’t mean we’re a tribe with any special attributes. You know, it’s just a collection of people who are mixed, you know, from other people who do have a tribal history or can trace their whatevers. But we’re this motley collection of almost anybody. And that therefore it’s simpler to try and think of us as people, and that we should try and do our best as people, rather than as coloured people or… But I mean it’s kind of, it’s quite a strange kind of… Because it cannot be an absolute. And I realised that there’s a lot of things [laughs] about me and where I come from and the people that have shaped me that, that are still a part of me, you know, and if that means being, growing up in a coloured community, going to a coloured school, going with coloured friends, and you know, falling in love with coloured girls, whatever, it means a whole hell of a lot, you know? It’s more than just, um, any one thing. So, there is, there is a lot of people’s culture in what I’ve grown up with, and the cultures could be admixtures of any number of people from Europe and from South Africa, and other parts of Africa, and in lots of cases St Helena island and you know … and intermarriage between Muslim and Christian people.13

Since those early years when the word “coloured” was viewed in essentialist terms, it has since evolved – as is so eloquently articulated by Hanmer – to describe a diverse group of people with a heritage that is at once transformed and transforming through processes of creolization. In invoking creolization, I refer specifically to that “unpredictable energy of overcoming,” as Martin translates the Caribbean poet Édouard Glissant’s “dépassante imprévisible,”14 to that limitless mixture of cultural mixtures that becomes more than the sum of its parts, “its consequences unforeseeable.”15 A process understood by Glissant as affecting the entire world, creolization is also a manifestation of his Poetics of Relation, “in which each and every identity is extended through a relationship with the other.”16 Yet to evoke creolization is also to acknowledge one of its fundamental conditions – conflict. To speak of creolization in this context is also to stress the term’s origins – in the writing of Kamau Brathwaite and others – as a means to understand cultural processes in a society with a history of colonialism, slavery and dominion, where the confrontation between different and unequal cultures is “not only cruel, but also creative.”17

Several writers, including Shell, Erasmus, Martin, Adhikari and Willemse, have enlisted creolization as a way to speak about the coloured population of South Africa. To do so is to identify the slaves of the Cape Colony and their descendants as people “transformed elsewhere into another people,” as a community that has entered into processes of creolization by virtue of not having brought with it “the methods of existence and survival, both material and spiritual, which it practiced before being uprooted.”18 This invariably resulted in the creation of new cultural forms, new mixtures made from the old; not to be seen as derivative, but as powerfully more than the sum of their parts. In his history of slavery at the Cape of Good Hope, Robert Shell lists one of its legacies as “the as yet unexamined creole culture of South Africa, with its new cuisine, its new architecture, its new music, its melodious, forthright, and poetic language, Afrikaans, first expressed in the Arabic script of the slaves’ religion and written literature.”19 It is precisely this legacy that the musical Ghoema sets out to explore, with particular emphasis – as the medium of musical theatre suggests – on both language and music.

Yet it is not only slave descendants who are party to the intimate and violent entanglements of creolization. One of the acknowledgements of this in Ghoema is the evocation of the stereotype, “Hottentot,” in the combined names of its hip-hop narrators. Applied by Europeans since the 17th century to refer to the native Khoikhoi, evoking this name on stage is a reminder to the audience that, as indentured labourers often treated no differently to slaves, South Africa’s earliest inhabitants share the legacy of slavery and oppression. A pejorative term, “Hottentot” is also a reminder of the negative stereotyping and loss of dignity that South Africa’s coloured population have had to endure from the time of early Dutch settlement, throughout the apartheid years, and beyond. Still others contributed the riches of their cultures of origin to the creolization process. This included other indigenous African people by way of the Bantu-speaking individuals who settled in Cape Town and joined the mix. Also party were political convicts from Dutch “possessions” in the Southeast Indies, individuals who played a role in establishing Islam at the Cape and whose descendants, together with slave descendants who had converted to Islam, eventually began to be regarded as constituting the Cape Malay community.

In emphasizing the contribution of coloured individuals to the rich cultural heritage of South Africa, Ghoema brought an alternative history to the stage. It was a history that sought to trounce one of the most brutal stereotypes that colonialism and apartheid had attached to the coloured population: that as essentialized products of miscegenation they had no culture, and no history of their own. That Ghoema sought to historicize the coloured experience is made apparent when, after Hot and Tot’s first lines, the two female narrators, Minnah and Dina, introduce the audience to the traditions of a Cape Town New Year as they know it, all the while emphasizing its “oldness.”


If an audience were to take Ghoema’s history lesson seriously, it would no longer be possible to entertain the debilitating myth that coloured South Africans possessed no history or culture. This implausible construction of a historical void can perhaps best be explained as an attempt on the part of white South Africans, and in particular Afrikaners, to deny creolization altogether in a strategy to safeguard their own imagined racial purity. Creolization has always taken as its premise that there is no such thing as purity, proceeding from the premise that everything is always already gloriously mixed. Moreover, creolization involves both slave and master. Its main stage is there where the most intimate exchanges take place, in the slave master’s home. The denial of creolization, the historic disavowal of the Afrikaners’ involvement in anything that would have involved them in racial intermingling, is integral to the purist identity that they sought to construct for themselves during the first half of the twentieth century.

This notion is powerfully underlined in that oft-quoted passage spoken by the Afrikaner poet Breyten Breytenbach during a speech delivered at the University of Cape Town in 1973:21

Ons is ’n bastervolk met ’n bastertaal. Ons aard is basterskap. Dis goed en mooi so. Ons moet kompos wees, ontbindend om wéér in ander vorme te kan bind. Net, ons het in die slagyster getrap van die baster wat aan bewind kom. In daardie gedeelte van ons bloed wat van Europa kom, was die vloek van meerderwaardigheid. Ons wou ons mag regverdig. En om dit te kon doen, moes ons ons gewaande stamidentiteit stol. Ons moes áfkamp, bekamp, verkramp. Ons moes ons andersheid verskans en terselfdertyd behóú wat ons verower het. Ons het van ons andersheid die norm, die standaard gemaak – en die ideaal. En omdat die handhawing van ons andersheid ten onkoste van ons mede-Suid-Afrikaners – en ons Suid-Afrikaansheid – is, het ons ons bedreig gevoel. Ons het mure gebou. Nie stede nie, maar stadsmure. En soos alle basters – onseker oor hul identiteit – het ons die begrip van suiwerheid begin aanhang. Dit is apartheid. Apartheid is the law of the bastard.22

Referring to Ronald Radano’s analysis of the racialization of American music in the wake of the Civil War, Martin identifies a similar turn of events in South Africa.23 In the United States, a denial of interracial commingling (including with regard to musical practices) on the part of the white population led to the classification of music – even though it was already more or less mixed – as either “white” or “black,” and thus resulted in African-Americans being inadvertently given the “gift” of the latter.24 Martin, who has described the musical history of Cape Town as “largely the result of a process of creolization that has been devalued and rejected by the ruling sections of the population but never wiped out,” suggests that a denial of creolization in South Africa served similarly to fracture its legacy.25 This is a convincing explanation of why certain creolized and creolizing cultural forms – like the language Afrikaans and certain folk songs – were claimed as “pure” by white Afrikaners, while still others – a number of ghoemaliedjies for example – were rejected, and “gifted” to coloured South Africans.

It is this very terrain that Ghoema traverses. The musical contains a number of ghoemaliedjies and nederlandsliedjies, but also original compositions influenced by these song forms, such as “Blue Sky” (based on an old nederlandsliedjie). Sharing its name with both the ghoema drum and its eponymous rhythm, the ghoemaliedjie or piekniekliedjie (literally “picnic song”), originated as a repertoire sung by slaves during times of leisure. Thought to contain influences from both Dutch comic songs and from the Indonesian repertoires of krontjong and pantun, ghoemaliedjies were originally dancing songs with Afrikaans lyrics, “on the caustic side,” used to poke fun at people or situations.26 Nederlandsliedjies, on the other hand, are slower songs sung to a Dutch text altered by oral transmission that often takes a romantic theme as its subject. Thought to have evolved from old Dutch songs and influenced by expressive forms absorbed from Islam (in particular the adhan, or Muslim call to prayer), nederlandsliedjies are responsorial with elements that sound both eastern and western: a soloist singing a melody characterized by melismatic ornamentations, and a choir answering in four-part harmony.

Both ghoemaliedjies and nederlandsliedjies are considered traditional music repertories of coloured and Cape Malay South Africans. Yet Ghoema also contains several folk songs that belong to an overlapping repertoire shared both by coloured and white Afrikaans-speakers, even if not always explicitly acknowledged by the latter. Part of Ghoema’s power lies in demonstrating that a number of these songs were created by the slaves themselves who embedded hidden messages, often of a sexual nature, in the lyrics. These include “Vanaand gaan die volkies koring sny” (Tonight the folk will cut corn), “Die trane die rol oor jou, bokkie” (The tears are rolling over you, darling), and “Solank as die rietjie in die water lê” (As long as the reed is lying in the water). By way of an example, these three songs are all included in the Federasie van Afrikaanse Kultuurereniginge (fak) Sangbundel, a collection of folk songs published by an institution historically associated with white Afrikaner nationalism.27 There, these songs are each listed as a “S.A. Volkswysie” (South African Folk Song), arranged by either S.H. Eyssen or Dirkie de Villiers, both white Afrikaans composers. Taliep Petersen’s stance to this perceived cultural appropriation is illustrated by comments he made in 2006, suggesting that the problem is not just with how these songs are presented, but with their very inclusion in the fak-Sangbundel:28

Baie van ons goete (Kaaps-Maleise liedjies) is daarin. Ons het dit niks gelaaik nie. Dis die hele ding van vat wat nie aan jou behoort nie. Ek het al boeke gesien met die naam Bóére sangbundel, dan wemel dit van Maleise musiek. My mense het wég gevoel daarvan. Ons is nié fak nie.29

Part of Ghoema’s subversion, then, is located in the rehabilitation of these folk songs by demonstrating that they are just as much the cultural “property” of coloured South Africans. Related to this is another important way through which Ghoema attempts to right cultural misappropriation – through the use of Kaaps in its spoken and rapped text. “There is a huge misconception among people that Afrikaans is the oppressor’s language,” Petersen explained to a journalist shortly before the musical’s opening at the Baxter Theatre. “But they don’t understand that the slaves also used the language and they made a major contribution to this country.”30 Accordingly, one of the most important messages in Ghoema is that the Afrikaans language is one of the legacies of creolization at the Cape of Good Hope, and that slaves and slave descendants played a vital role in its creation. This message wasn’t a fanciful political ploy, but the staging and popularization of established research. As Achmat Davids has established, already in the early nineteenth century the Cape Malay religious community used the language that would later be known as “Afrikaans” as a medium of instruction in their schools, and some of the first books written in this language were published in Arabic script.31

Ghoema’s narrators, Minnah and Dina, explain the creole origins of Afrikaans simply, emphasizing as they do so those words that have their origin in the Southeast-Asian languages spoken by the slave population in the early years of the Cape Colony:


Simply put, Ghoema stakes a claim for Afrikaans as belonging to all who speak it, whether coloured or white. But in using that contested variant of Afrikaans long denied legitimacy by the white minority who claimed a “standardized” version of the language as core component of their own, exclusive identity, it goes a step further to lay claim to Kaaps as an equally legitimate form of the language. In this, it would join other artistic efforts, such as the work of hip-hop crews Brasse vannie Kaap and Prophets of da City, or the popular Joe Barber comedy shows. To these, years later, the 2010 stage show Afrikaaps would be added.

Exploring the roots of Western Cape folk music had long been a keen interest of Kramer’s. As he explains, “For me, Ghoema was what I had wanted to do right from the beginning and which is what led me to District Six in the first place. It took twenty years for Taliep and I to amalgamate properly to have the same vision.”33 Petersen, who started his career as a six-year-old soloist in the Cape Coon Carnival, had grown up surrounded by the music presented in Ghoema, and speaking the language it showcased on the stage. Even though, as Kramer remembers, his writing partner had not been interested in pursuing a musical about slavery in the early years of their collaboration, Petersen, himself a slave descendant, had over the years gradually become more and more committed to exploring this part of his heritage. Besides actively claiming a slave heritage from the early 1990s onward, he also claimed to have traced his own ancestry to both Malacca and Indonesia.34 Seven years before Ghoema was staged, he proudly addressed the audience of the concert Two Worlds – One Heart, held in Malaysia in 1998, as follows:

I happen to be the ninth generation of Malay slaves. It took me exactly … it took us three-hundred-and-seven years to come back home. My forefathers were taken from here as slaves, exactly three-hundred-and-seven years ago. I came in search of my roots in the year 1994, because as you know, we could not come to your country before that, nor could you come to my country. I was very proud and honoured to discover that, from my father’s side, are we from an area called Malacca, and my father’s surname, the family surname is Boeganoedien. From my mother’s side, we’re from an area in Indonesia, and their surname is Boerhaan. So, I can say proudly, I’m fully-fledged Malayu.35

By 2005 Petersen was heavily invested in this aspect of his personal history, and increasingly interested in exploring the origins of the folk music with which he had grown up. Compared to the vast majority of coloured South Africans, this made him something of an anomaly. Kramer remembers that at the time, the history presented in Ghoema was as unknown to their company of coloured actors and musicians as it was to their audiences. In an e-mail, he explained as follows:

It had an enormous impact on the way people saw themselves and their place in this South African story. My experience of developing this piece in rehearsal was that, although the musicians and singers had been deeply involved in their traditions (for example the ‘Malay’ choirs, klopse, nagtroepe etc.), they were completely in the dark about the history and origins of these traditions. Their personal family histories were also limited. Almost all the research that was brought into the rehearsal room was a revelation to them. And this is probably what the reaction was for most of our audiences […] The connection to historical events and the syncretic process of creolization was completely absent. The ghoema drum is a good example of this. They were all very familiar with this drum, how it looked, how it was played and when and where it was used. So my question to them was: Why did they think it was constructed from plywood panels? Why was it different to a djembe drum? Why this drum and not a djembe? When I presented them with the historical connection to the wine vats found on farms and that the ghoema drum had evolved from these early farm instruments they began to understand how unique it is to the Cape and the part their forefathers and previous generations had played in most aspects of this creole culture.36

Given Kramer and Petersen’s intentions with the piece, its content and its use of the ghoema drum as its central symbol, it readily presents itself to a reading through the lens of creolization theory. One such a reading has been performed by Afrikaans literary scholar, Hein Willemse.

Willemse touches on several of the aspects of Ghoema that I have discussed in this essay, highlighting in particular its strategy of claiming a history for coloured South Africans, its demonstration of “métissage” in Cape musical forms, and its presentation of folk music as subversive in the Bakhtinian sense of the word.37 Willemse finally reads Ghoema, with its continued emphasis on the uniqueness of Cape creole culture, as a declaration of a unique contemporary identity that runs the risk of – and indeed succumbs to – becoming a search for authenticity.38 Ultimately, as Willemse cautions, this runs counter to creolization’s central thesis. The claiming of a fixed identity is always incompatible with the ever-transformative power of creolization, a process which can lead to nothing other than, in Glissant’s words, “a never ending change.”39 Said another way, there is no such thing as a creole identity, only a creolizing one.

This seems to be, at least for Willemse, the point at which Ghoema unintentionally forsakes the possibilities of creolization. Yet in reaching this conclusion, he also betrays a fundamental ontological bias towards Kramer’s script. As a literary scholar, he seems to treat the musical as a fixed literary text; not as a performance, and not as music, both of which are ontologically fluid. Regarding Ghoema as the manifestation of a fixed identity, I would argue, is to deny its performative aspect, to forget that with every performance of Ghoema, meanings are generated anew between actors, musicians and audience. It is to forget that the future-orientated words of its final anthem, “Ghoema vannie Kaap,” would ring out differently each night, each time it was performed.

In die Kaap van Goeie Hoop

Groei daar ‘n blom

Kan jy dit hoor?

Daar’s iets aan die kom!

Dis die ghoema

Die ghoema drom

Hoor hoe slaan die ghoema

Hoor hoe slaan die ghoema

Die ghoema

Die ghoema vanie Kaap40

Reading Ghoema as a staged representation of creolization, my qualms were different to those of Willemse. For me, a fundamental aspect of creolization was conceptually missing (not ontologically contradicted) from the very start. This missing essence is the violence that ripped slaves and indentured labourers from their worlds, the cruelty that led them finally, in the words of Martin, to “on the one hand, bring together every faintest trace that could have been preserved from their own cultures and, on the other, to ‘borrow’ from the master’s culture whatever could be used towards the reconstruction of their humanhood.”41

This absence of violence in the musical is not confined to a theoretical understanding of creolization. The continued effects of South Africa’s history of trauma and dispossession are very much present in the fabric of its every-day life. Testament to the importance of Ghoema is that the work makes it possible to ask fundamental questions about the performance of historical violence and trauma on a twenty-first century South African stage, particularly as it is performed through music. To do so is not to negate the brave and ground-breaking efforts of Kramer and Petersen in creating Ghoema. They took the history of violence against coloured South Africans seriously in their presentation of a new “truth” about the origins of creolized cultural practices. Rather, it is to question the nature of and the reasons for the domestication of violence in musical theatre. It is also to question whether staging a “truth” in this way in itself amounts to a form of restitution, or just its pale reflection. Put differently, could this particular inscription of the past really facilitate a claiming of the present?

After the run of Ghoema! at kknk, the musical’s reworking into Ghoema and its subsequent opening at the Baxter Theatre, it played at the University of Johannesburg’s Arts Centre and in Stellenbosch’s HB Thom Theatre. It also toured to the Netherlands and to London. In response to a question from me about the audience response to Ghoema, Kramer answered in an e-mail:

The reaction at kknk was very positive and enthusiastic which is what encouraged us to bring it to the city. Ton Vosloo said to me after seeing it in Oudtshoorn, ‘Jy’t die mense op ’n mooi manier vertel waarvandaan die taal kom [You told the people in a nice way where the language comes from].’ Difficult for me to say what people thought. My impression was that our version of the roots of Cape creole (Afrikaans) and the introduction of the contribution that was made by slaves was shocking for some and hugely liberating for others. It’s possible that a few whites were uncomfortable with this perspective. But the general reaction was enthusiastic. It was a huge box office success and travelled internationally. For coloured audiences it conveyed a secret history. It was reaffirming. That it celebrated a topic and a history which people had suppressed and felt shameful about, was liberating.42

Kramer’s easy equation here of the efficacy of Ghoema in conveying its “secret history” to its success as a commercial endeavor points to the meaning of such a domestication of violence in this performance. Had more whites been uncomfortable with its message, had it not been presented in a “mooi manier” [nice way], would Ghoema still have been a box office success? The history that Ghoema presents to its audiences can only be described as a painful one. Yet any vestige of pain is lost in the energetic playing and dancing on stage, in the exaggerated gestures of its actors that steer their performances dangerously close to caricature. To take us back to that opening instruction of “sit back, relax,” erasure of the discomfort resulting from violence seems like a precondition to creating a piece with entertainment and commercial value.

Music means different things to different people. It also means different things to different people at different times. Ghoema’s musical landscape brims with toe-tapping, tonal celebrations of Cape culture. To many, this provided a positively uplifting experience, as is evident from the title of Mariana Malan’s review in Die Burger: “‘Ghoema’ stuur jou met lied in die hart huis toe” [“Ghoema” sends you home with a song in the heart]. To what extent does music dull the pain of apartheid’s violence in Ghoema? Judging from Malan’s review in a newspaper with an overwhelming white Afrikaans readership, in no small measure. It did so precisely by emphasizing communality – through Afrikaans and this shared body of folk songs – between Afrikaners and formerly oppressed South Africans. Finding communality has become one way in which the former ruling class and their descendants can justify existing in privilege in the disfigured country of their birth. The reality of contemporary Afrikaans language politics is such that white denial of creolization has been replaced by an emphasis on a shared cultural heritage with formerly oppressed South Africans, if only in the interests of preserving said cultural heritage. The ease with which this transition has been made begs the question of whether the music in Ghoema fulfils the function of diffusing trauma, of servicing the amnesia craved by the beneficiaries of apartheid and of lulling through easy-listening aesthetics the restless collective consciousness of white shame.

To what extent, finally, did Ghoema succeed in claiming the present for coloured South Africans? How has the “enormous impact” that Kramer speaks of translated into everyday life? Ghoema’s history lesson stops short just before the traumatic years of apartheid. There is a period of historical amnesia, if you will, that separates the musical’s past from its present. In the painfully fractured environment of contemporary South Africa, it is hard to think of a purposefully didactic piece such as Ghoema as having taught its lesson in the way it really needed to have been heard. Fifteen years after it graced the stage to enthuse audiences and critics alike, the victims of its story are still very much on the margins, many of them living in poor conditions on the Cape Flats – apartheid’s dumping ground – without access to all the opportunities promised to them after 1994.

Ultimately, Ghoema can productively be read as one of the many artistic projects that performed identity claims in Desmond Tutu’s Rainbow Nation, with individuals and groups seeking to reconfigure their identities in a context where cultural pluralism and heritage were seen as key components in the nation building agenda.43 This was before the politics of reconciliation began to give way so dramatically to the politics of decoloniality that inform this particular reading. Seen from the perspective of post-post-apartheid, Ghoema’s failure to translate its inscription of the past into a meaningful claiming of its present becomes an illustration of the fault lines in the geology of reconciliation that ultimately made the seismic shift towards decoloniality inevitable. Yet it also posits Ghoema as a performance “out of time,” as it were. It suggests that the politics of meaning-making in post-post-apartheid South Africa have overtaken the horizons of possibility inherent in Ghoema. Socio-politically, the country moves to a different rhythm from its creolizing language and repertoire. Right now, at least, the pulsating and energetic ghoema beat is simply too slow.

Works Cited

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  • Nkonyeni Ncedisa . “Da Struggle Kontinues into the 21st Century: Two Decades of Nation-Conscious Rap in Cape Town.” In Imagining the City: Memories and Cultures in Cape Town, edited by Sean Field et al. , 151172. Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2007.

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  • Petersen Taliep . Interview with Denis-Constant Martin. 15 November 1994.

  • Radano Ronald . Lying a Nation, Race and Black Music.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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  • Willemse Hein . “Kreolisering en Identiteit in die Musiekblyspel, Ghoema.” Stilet 19, no.1 (2010): 3042.

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"Dis nie myne nie, dis nie joune nie" is the title of a ghoemaliedjie that translates as, “It’s not mine, it’s not yours.”


Qtd. In: Percy Zvomuya, “Singing History from the Cape of Sorrows,” Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg), June 21, 2007.


Denis-Constant Martin, Sounding the Cape: Music, Identity and Politics in South Africa (Somerset West: African Minds, 2013): 353.


Although the word “coon” has its origins in the United States as a racist reference to African-Americans, members of the South African klopse (literally “clubs”) that partake in this tradition generally use it with an entirely different set of connotations. For this reason, it is employed in this essay rather than the term “minstrel” that has more recently entered the discourse for the sake of political sanitization. This is a deliberate strategy aimed at acknowledging the power of words and concepts to travel and to be reinscribed with new meanings. I also take my cue from Taliep Petersen, who not only started his musical career in the Cape Coon Carnival, but who remained active as a coach for the rest of his life. “The Americans come and they don’t want us to use the word ‘coon’ because it’s derogatory,” he explained to Denis-Constant Martin in 1994. “For the people here, ‘coon’ is not derogatory, in our sense, for us, the minute you talk coon he sees New Year’s Day, he sees satin, and the painted … white around the eyes, black around the rest, the eyes and mouth with circles in white, the rest of the face was in black like the American minstrel, or, it’s easy to understand, like Al Jolson.” Taliep Petersen, Interview with Denis-Constant Martin, 15 November 1994.


Ncedisa Nkonyeni, “Da Struggle Kontinues into the 21st Century: Two Decades of Nation-Conscious Rap in Cape Town,” in Imagining the City: Memories and Cultures in Cape Town, ed. Sean Field et al (Cape Town: hsrc Press, 2007), 154.


Jeffrey Louis Decker, “The State of Rap: Time and Place in Hip Hop Nationalism,” Social Text 34 (1993): 55.


Zimitri Erasmus, “Introduction: Re-Imagining Coloured Identities in Post-Apartheid South Africa.” in Coloured by History, Shaped by Place: New Perspectives on Coloured Identities in the Cape, ed. Zimitri Erasmus (Kwela and South African History Online, 2001), 16.


This is the version that will be discussed in this essay, specifically a performance filmed at the Baxter Theatre and brought out on dvd in 2009.


Mariana Malan, “‘Ghoema’ Stuur Jou Met Lied in die Hart Huis Toe,” Die Burger (Cape Town), Nov. 18, 2005; Gerrit Brand, “‘Ghoema’ Kraai Koning by Fleur du Cap-Teaterpryse,” Beeld (Johannesburg), March 8, 2006.


For more information about the Kramer/Petersen collaboration and a discussion of these individual musicals, see Paula Fourie, “‘Ghoema vannie Kaap’: The Life and Work of Taliep Petersen (1950–2006),” Dissertation: University of Stellenbosch, 2013.


For an overview of the changing perspectives on South African coloured identity in the twentieth century, see Mohamed Adhikari, “From Narratives of Miscegenation to Post-Modernist Re-Imagining: Toward a Historiography of Coloured Identity in South Africa,” African Historical Review 40, no. 1 (2008): 77–100.


Paul Hammer, personal interview, Nov. 29, 2011.


Denis-Constant Martin, Sounding the Cape, 62.


Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010), 34.


Ibid., 11.


Denis-Constant Martin, Sounding the Cape, 61.


Édouard Glissant, Caribbean Discourse: Selected Essays, trans. J. Michael Dash (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1989), 15.


Robert C.-H Shell, Children of Bondage: A Social History of the Slave Society at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652–1838 (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1994), 415.


Breyten Breytenbach, Parool/Parole: Versamelde Toesprake/Collected Speeches (Cape Town: Penguin, 2015), 12.


“We are a bastard people with a bastard language. Our nature is one of bastardy. It is good and beautiful thus. We must be compost, disintegrating to once more integrate into other forms. Only, we have stepped into the snare of the bastard who has come into power. In that part of our blood that comes from Europe was the curse of superiority. We wanted to justify our power. And to be able to do that, we had to congeal our imagined tribal identity. We had to fence off, fight off, cramp up. We had to entrench our otherness and simultaneously retain what we had conquered. We made of our otherness the norm, the standard – and the ideal. And because the maintenance of our otherness is at the expense of our fellow South Africans – and of our South Africanness – we felt ourselves threatened. We built walls. Not cities, but city walls. And like all bastards – uncertain about their identity – we began to cling to the notion of purity. That is apartheid. Apartheid is the law of the bastard.”


Denis-Constant Martin, Sounding the Cape, 87.


Ronald Radano, Lying a Nation, Race and Black Music (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003), 114–115.


Denis-Constant Martin, “Cape Town: The Ambiguous Heritage of Creolization in South Africa,” in Popular Snapshots and Tracks to the Past: Cape Town, Nairobi, Lubumbashi, ed. Danielle de Lame and Ciraj Rassool (Royal Museum for Central Africa, 2010), 184; Denis-Constant Martin, Sounding the Cape, 67–68.


Denis-Constant Martin, Sounding the Cape, 112.


Dirkie De Villiers, et al, Nuwe F.A.K.-sangbundel (Cape Town: Nasionale Boekhandel Beperk, 1961), 463, 468, 483.


Hanlie Retief, “Afrikaans deur dik en dun,” Rapport (Johannesburg), Feb. 26, 2006.


"A lot of our things (Cape Malay songs) are in it. We didn’t like it at all. It’s that whole thing of taking what doesn’t belong to you. I have seen books before with the name, Boere songbook, then it crawls with Malay music. My people felt away from that. We are not fak.”


Igsaan Salie, “A New Take on the History of Our Liedjies,” Saturday Weekend Argus (Cape Town), Nov. 5, 2005.


Achmat Davids, The Afrikaans of the Cape Muslims: From 1815 to 1915, eds. Hein Willemse and Suleman E Dangor (Pretoria: Protea, 2011), 84–87.


David Kramer, personal interview, Nov. 1, 2012.


Paula Fourie, “Ghoema vannie Kaap,” 275–280.


Ibid., 277.


David Kramer, Email to author, April 23, 2017.


Hein Willemse, “Kreolisering en Identiteit in die Musiekblyspel, Ghoema,” Stilet 19, no.1 (2010): 34–38.


Ibid., 38.


Qtd. in Denis-Constant Martin, Sounding the Cape, 63.


“In the Cape of Good Hope/ A flower is growing/ Can you hear it?/ Something is coming!/ It’s the ghoema/ The ghoema drum/ Listen to the beat of the ghoema/ Listen to the beat of the ghoema/ The ghoema/ The ghoema of the Cape.”


Denis-Constant Martin, Sounding the Cape, 86.


David Kramer, Email to author, April 23, 2017.


Heike Becker, “A Hip-Hopera in Cape Town: The Aesthetics, and Politics of Performing ‘Afrikaaps,’” Journal of African Cultural Studies 29, no. 2 (2017): 246,


“Wake up, wake up/ You’re all asleep/ We are hip hop brasse/ Born in the Cape/ His name is Tot/ And my name is Hot/ We are the brasse/ Hot and Tot […] Yes, we are two laaitjies [South African slang for young boys], we come from the Cape Flats/We are so-called coloureds/But there’s more to us than that/ So sit back, relax/Switch off your cell/ It’s a story of the ghoema/That we are going to tell.” All the translations in this essay are by the author. To avoid doing damage to Kaaps by forcing it to adapt to the spelling conventions of so-called "standard Afrikaans," I have written down spoken and sung text phonetically as I have heard it.


“These are old traditions, these.” “They’ve walked a long road.” “Now Minnah, Minnah, how did all these things happen here in the Cape?” “Come sit. Come sit nicely.” “Come sit nicely.” “Then we will tell you what happened here hundreds of years ago.”


“The whole year the slaves work on the farm. They build the houses, milk the cows, take care of the farmer’s children. Carry water, chop wood, catch fish in the sea. They work on the ships and they work in the kitchen.” “And there in-between where the sailors are, and where the food is cooked, a new language emerges. A language that everyone can understand. With words like jacket, much, fight, chutney, stew, guava, office, saucer, banana, beg, jail, cane and whip.”

Forays into Contemporary South African Theatre

Devising New Stage Idioms



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