Klawerjas (or klaverjas/ klaberjass or ‘Klob’) is a Dutch card game played in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, where it has become synonymous with minority (often expatriate) communities (Gibson, 1974). It was introduced during Dutch colonialism in the 17th century and became a popular colonial pastime amongst a wide cross-section of the population. The Cape Town Malay slave population, especially those from Indonesia and who had a well-established card-playing and gambling tradition, were most prominent in this regard (Anon, 1898). Although gambling was subsequently banned, the game itself survived colonialism, the Anglo-Boer War and apartheid and continues to thrive in the 21st century. During the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) it was an important recreational pastime for some members of the Boer commandos. It was also kept alive during their imprisonment on the island of St. Helena (Pretorius, 1990). Similarly, the descendants of the original slaves found similar uses for the game, such as using it to finance anti-apartheid campaigns during the 1950s (Anti-CAD, 1951) and employed it as a form of recreation for political prisoners on Robben Island (Mangcu, 2017; Vearey, 2019).
Whereas the early or pre-20th century game was informal, either free or with voluntary or “emergent and temporary” rules, with an uncertain outcome and aimed at personal satisfaction (Frey & Eitzen, 1991), the later game was highly organised with a set of formal competition rules enforced by a national controlling body, the South African Klawerjas Board of Control (SAKBOC), established in 1988 (Jacobs, undated). It continued to enjoy a strong organised foothold amongst members of the Coloured community in both the Western and Eastern Cape Province, where there is a network of community-based clubs and regional associations in existence. Indeed regional associations such as the South Peninsula, Brooklyn Chess, Maitland and Cape United klawerjas unions – each representing a number of clubs – were amongst the first if not the first to organise the sport beyond club level. The first-mentioned union coincidentally celebrated its 72nd anniversary in 2018. Collectively, they formed the Western Province Klawerjas Board (WPKB) in 1949 (Jacobs, undated).
The founding of the WPKB was a seminal and pioneering event of global significance since it was not only the first organisation of its kind in South Africa but seemingly also in the history of world klawerjas. Its formation preceded the establishment of the klawerjas associations of New South Wales (1965) and Victoria (1966) in Australia (Dutch Weekly, 12 May 1995; Dutch Australian Weekly, 4 March 1966), the Nederlandse Klaverjas Federatie (est.1972), (Dutch Australian Weekly, 1 September 1975) and the World Klaverjas Association in 1975 (Dutch Australian Weekly, 6 September 1974). The WPKB, however, had a short life-span and as a result of internal divisions, disappeared about two years later and was only relaunched in 2005 as the Western Province Klawerjas Association (WPKA). In its absence, the remaining regional associations kept the sport alive. The current body is, therefore, a revived organisation with the South Peninsula Union as its longest-surviving member. The SPKU was later joined by Mitchell’s Plain (est. 1988), Southern Suburbs (the 1980s) and False Bay (est. 2006) with a collective membership of 26 member clubs.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that the game is known and continues to be played by individuals and informal groups of all races in both the urban and rural areas in provinces other than the Eastern and Western Cape. Recent attempts by the SA Klawerjas Board of Control to establish a national footprint beyond the game’s heartland, however, foundered because of the lack of commitment to a structured and organised game by recruits. These challenges notwithstanding, the game has succeeded in expanding beyond self-secluded and socio-cultural enclaves where ‘strangeness’ is constructed and manifested (Levy, 1999).
Playing the game
According to De Fina (2007), “a group that is defined by the existence of a joint enterprise, mutual engagement, and a shared repertoire of resources”, irrespective of geographic location, forms a ‘community of practice’. Such a group has its own organisational structure, discourse, language and socialisation practices. South African klawerjas players and their organisations, therefore constitute a community of practice. As a natural consequence of the domestication of what was a foreign game, the local version developed its own distinctive local terminology (a mixture of Afrikaans and English), a phenomenon that De Fina in a different context called a “discourse practice” (De Fina, 2007). Amongst the terms central to the game are ‘Boer’ (jack of trumps), ‘Manel’ (nine of trumps), ‘Roemte’ (bonus points), ‘Sturk’ (king and queen of trumps), ‘Twintig’ (three cards in an unbroken sequence), ‘Vyftig’ (four cards in a continuous sequence), ‘Boom’ (a set of five strokes), and ‘Af’ (penalising). These terms represent what Livingston (2012) has called ‘the abiding mystery’ of the cards. It is also at the heart of the construction of a new ‘speech community’ (literally the klawerjas community) where most if not all of the cultural, ethnic and linguistic differentiations that accompanied the players before their entry in the playing arena, are exchanged for membership of the ‘new’ community of practice (Lo, 1999).
The local game is played according to the published rules of the South African Klawerjas Board of Control (SAKBOC) with a deck of 32 cards (aces, kings, queens, jacks, tens, nines, eights and sevens) in each of the usual four suits – spades, clubs, hearts and diamonds. Each card has a different point value with jacks in a trumps suit having the highest point value, namely 20. In terms of the trumps suit ranking order, from high to low the cards score as follows: nines (14 points), aces (11 points), tens (10 points), kings (3 points), and queens (2 points). The points allocation for other suits (with different colour cards) is aces (11), tens (10), king (3), queen (2) and jack (1). The objective of the game is to score as many points as possible in a specific time from a hand of eight cards. Players can also score bonus points if they have an unbroken sequence of cards in a suit – three cards of the same score 20 while four cards score 50 points. King and queen of trumps have a value of 20. Four kings, queens, aces, jacks or five tens score 100 bonus points. There are a further five bonus points for the team who takes the last ‘trick’ (Law & Deane, 2013). The game is scored at the end of each hand with the points in one hand added up to 146 (141 for the cards and five bonus points for the last trick) (WPKA).
For the experienced player, who has not only mastered the technicalities of the game but who also understands the language and the ‘situated power’ of every card, extracting meaning and combining a handful of cards, logically following the ‘indigenous reasoning’ peculiar to the game, poses no difficulty. This game like others played elsewhere in the world, requires ‘a quick-witted and clear-thinking player’ with the ability to calculate and for whom a mere glance at a hand of cards is enough to determine the direction and potential outcome of the game (Berndt & Berndt,1947). The language and semantics of the game, therefore, due to its links with the past and the activities of the previous generations and its function as ‘a source for interpretation and discussion’, are central to the construction and collection of heritage stories and narratives (De Fina, 2008).
Clubs both in the Western and Eastern Cape regularly competed in official league, knockout, bowl, shield and inter-union competitions. These competitions allowed for all levels of competency, a strategy that ensures that even those clubs and unions at the bottom of the competition ladder with less-skilled players will remain in the competition. Highly competent club players may also be selected for their respective districts or sub-unions, and, if good enough, gain selection to the provincial team for participation in the official South African championships. Winning the national title is the ultimate honour for players in the absence of international competition (Courie, 2018). In addition to official competition, individual clubs and members also host their own ‘klawerjas nights’ where several social hands (or ‘potjies’) are played. These occasions, which rotate between the homes of the individual members, are social events that are accompanied by the provision of appropriate refreshments (‘a bottle or two’). Although played on a ‘friendly’ basis, these supposedly informal games, however, continue to be characterised by fierce competition (Courie, 2018). Judging by player comment on social media, these games, whether on local or inter-union level, are regarded as serious business, with individuals and clubs ‘throwing down the gauntlet’, displaying ‘fighting spirit’, ‘looking menacing’, forming ‘devastating partnerships’ and with all ‘fighting for the cause’ (Facebook, 2018).
Players, identity and respectability
Klawerjas players include members of both sexes, and come from all occupational-, religious- and age-groups of South African society. In some clubs, family groups are a prominent feature and central to the survival and continued growth of the game. As a result, competitions are gender-neutral with no provision for ‘special’ competitions for either women or youth. This alone ensures that the South African klawerjas-playing females have a card-playing experience significantly different from that of their American poker-playing counterparts who find themselves still subjected to specific participational barriers and who are often derisively referred to as “chicks with decks” (Abarbanel & Berndt, 2012). There are, however, suggestions of the persistence of what former administrator Lennie Jacobs called a ‘paradigm paralysis’ amongst those who resist both gender and other changes irrespective of whether it is for the good of the game (Jacobs, undated). Inter-regional rivalries and differences of a personal nature, however, remain an integral part of the game.
All of the member clubs have official names, boosted with distinctive colours or play uniforms. Member clubs have such names as Titans, Spartans, Nile Fire, Pegasus and Tri Force, indicative or suggestive of strong motivation and a high level of ambition. The act of naming, noted Nauright (1998) in a different context, extends beyond mere social and “cultural mimicking” but indeed forms part of a complex and ‘elaborate process of proving respectability’ and the pursuit of social advancement. The search for respectability is further promoted through the SAKBOC rules that guide the conduct of card players in official competitions and its provincial affiliates. Although the official rules or the constitution of the national body did not lay down any dress code, a strict code is in operation on club and provincial levels. The Western Province Klawerjas Association’s constitution is very explicit about this matter and maintains and strictly enforces a policy of ‘no dress, no play’ and has made the wearing of club tie and uniform compulsory (Courie, 2018). This dress code is very evident in the photographic galleries of a small number of clubs, all of which maintain a presence on social media such as Facebook. According to former klawerjas administrator Lennie Jacobs, the dress code not only helps to identify the competing teams and players but also promotes ‘an organised sporting image’ (Jacobs, 2018). These rules are especially important given the Association’s on-going attempt to attract young players into the game and its promotion as a disciplined activity.
The literature on card games suggests that the widespread adherence to an unwritten dress code and the act of dressing-up is a social practice closely connected with the search for respectability. It also represents an effort in distancing oneself from the traditional picture painted by moralists and anti-gambling writers of card games being little more than ‘rehearsed familiar plots of card parties rife with debauchery, crime, drunkenness, and the promiscuous mingling of the lower orders with their social betters’(Harrow, 2017). Dressing-up is, therefore, a form of self-presentation, or an activity that ‘carries social meaning that affects the impressions or images others form of the actor’ (Holtgraves, 1988).
Hayano, in a different context, noted that the aggressive management of personal and social identities and the promotion of respectable appearances, are defensive tactics that are frequently employed in instances where groups interact with society at large instead of hiding in ‘isolated or geographical subcultures’ (Hoyano, 1977). South African practices are therefore not an aberration but consistent with the founding motivation of the World Klaverjas Federatie in 1975, namely to move the game from being perceived as ‘een gezelligheidsspel’ characterised by ‘walmende sigaren en gezellig gekeuvel’ to ‘een denksport- een wetenschap welhaast’ (Dutch Australian Weekly, 3 June 1977).
The history of klawerjas sport, like the neglected past of bridge and poker, is part of the unmapped history of the Western and Eastern Cape Province’s black communities. Most South Africans are blissfully ignorant of the continued existence of the aforementioned organisations. There is also very little information available about the national prevalence of card playing in South Africa.
The first Human Sciences Research Council sport survey conducted almost four decades ago (1979-1982) for unknown reasons, totally excluded organised card games (poker, bridge and klawerjas) from its investigative scope (HSRC, 1982). This is particularly strange given the existence of reports of South African involvement with the activities of both the World Klaverjas Association and World Bridge Federation (Truscott, 1985). In addition, the SAKBOC, from its establishment, projected itself as the organisation that administered a game that ‘is mostly played as a recreational pastime in the Coloured communities of the Western and Eastern Cape and the game is generally passed on from parents to their children’(SAKBOC, undated).
This position and self-identification was both publicly accepted and endorsed by a number of other parties. Given this rich past, the game’s ‘strong and special association with a particular community or cultural group for social, cultural or spiritual reasons’ and the fact that people continue to practice it on a sustainable basis, qualifies it for inclusion in South Africa’s ‘national estate’ in terms of the National Heritage Resources Management Act (NHRMA,1999). This heritage should be foregrounded in order for communities to ‘participate in creating and shaping their heritage and identity’, assist in the formulation of place-making strategies and the creation, interpreting, protection and promotion of destination imagery (Ramshaw, 2017).
- Co-author Lennie Jacobs is a klawerjas historian based in Cape Town and a former executive member of a number of regional associations, including the South Peninsula Klawerjas Union.
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