Why Some Locals in Cape Town Remove Their Front Teeth

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip
Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip
Photo of Andrew Thompson
Freelance Writer - Instagram.com/andrewthompsonsa2 May 2018

When it comes to trends synonymous with Cape Town, few attract as much interest and attention from outsiders as the removal of up to four front teeth. Sometimes dubbed the passion-gap, but clinically referred to as dental mutilation, it’s a trend steeped in mystery superstition, and misguided stereotypes.

In order to understand the origins of this tooth removal process, it’s necessary to look back into South Africa’s history of racial segregation. That’s because the majority of people who practise it originate from the Cape Flats, an area on the outskirts of the city allocated for those forcibly removed by the apartheid government. The majority of people who live in the Cape Flats, and who participate in the removal of front teeth, fall within the apartheid-era racial classification of “coloured”.

Though the term is obviously problematic as a racial classification, and indeed in South Africa it was assigned by a racist government to classify an entire, diverse population group, these days many have claimed it back. By reclaiming the term, they’ve embraced the rich culture and history that comes with being coloured; including, for some, the removal of front teeth.

Urban legends of prisons and slavery

Even so, the practice is not widespread amongst everyone within this group, and as such it’s maintained a degree of misunderstanding and mystique.

Since it rose to prominence, many have attempted to seek out the real reason behind the removal. And yet in spite of formal studies, anecdotal investigations, mainstream articles and quirky documentaries, it’s still largely misunderstood; even those who have had their teeth pulled offer varying reasons as to why.

There’s a common urban legend that front teeth removal originates in Cape Town prisons, where gang leaders knock the teeth out of their “prison wives” so that they give better oral sex. Though this may have some element of modern-day truth, most attribute the origins to the mid-17th century, when some slaves removed their own teeth as a way to take back control of their bodies; a way to undermine their slave bosses, who often used dental health to value individuals.

Alex Mellon / | © Culture Trip

Seeking contemporary reasons

These days, the roots of the practice seem to have been forgotten, and it appears to be more driven by custom, peer pressure and fashion. Rapper Isaac Mutant told Vice in 2012 that pulling teeth to create a passion-gap is more than just a trend, it’s more a way of life for many, and ‘it’s always been there as a part of coloured culture’.

A documentary about the topic on YouTube called ‘Cape Town’s Passion-Gap’ seeks out firsthand reasons why people have decided to remove their teeth. The subjects cite everything from improved physical appearance to better kissing.

Some appear unclear about the reason, or offer more than one. Others remove their teeth only to replace them with bling-laden dentures. And to further complicate the matter, outsiders regularly cast aspersions on what they claim are the real reasons, many of which are derogatory, based on racially fuelled stereotypes.

There have also been some more formal studies that attempt to understand the practice. According to the Oral Hygienists’ Association of South Africa, one of the most comprehensive studies interviewed 2,167 coloured people, of which 41% had had their teeth removed. The study was also inconclusive, with respondents citing better smiles, improved kissing and oral sex and louder whistling.

Alex Mellon/ | © Culture Trip

Dental complications

Though documentaries like ‘Cape Town’s Passion-Gap’ paint it as a lighthearted decision, many dentists and oral hygienists caution against it. Front teeth removal not only complicates eating, but it can lead to infections, particularly when people use unauthorised backstreet dentists, or insert gold dentures. It’s not uncommon for infections to spread through the mouth, requiring the removal of all teeth and permanent dentures.

Despite the potential complications and the fact that most authorised dentists now refuse to perform the procedure, front teeth removal is still surprisingly common. Though many formal employers in the urban areas discourage visible gaps, the practice is still visible across a wide cross-section of society, from fishermen, taxi drivers and gangsters through to sporting stars and musicians.

And although to outsiders it may seem like a bizarre self-limiting practice, it’s self-identifying coloured blogger MelFunktion who says it best: “The new generation of Cape Coloureds are smart, creative, free thinking, hardworking, ambitious, curious, eloquent, proud of our unique, beautiful and colourful culture, not afraid to speak our mind, achieving great things and have formed identities of our own. An identity that will not and cannot be defined by what previous generations have done with their dental work.”

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel – and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Epic Trips, Mini Trips and Sailing Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travellers and friends who want to explore the world together.

Epic Trips are deeply immersive 8 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and enough down time to really relax and soak it all in. Our Mini Trips are small and mighty - they squeeze all the excitement and authenticity of our longer Epic Trips into a manageable 3-5 day window. Our Sailing Trips invite you to spend a week experiencing the best of the sea and land in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm – and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Cookies Policy

We and our partners use cookies to better understand your needs, improve performance and provide you with personalised content and advertisements. To allow us to provide a better and more tailored experience please click "OK"