Cape Town’s Passion Gap

Among Coloured people in Cape Town it is popular to pull out the front teeth – whether healthy or not. Some say they do it to be more attractive and others see it as a fashion statement.

18 year old Cassidy Links is hanging out with his friends at a corner shop in his homestreet Theronsberg in Mitchells Plain. He proudly presents his smile with all his missing front teeth. Cape Town’s inequality creates a market for illegal and cheap dentistry and the price of an extraction varies from R100 to R1000.

Cassidy had his healthy front teeth pulled out just like around 40% percent of other Capetonians that identify as Coloured. He explains:

It is a battle to eat meat, but the girls love it.

Extraction of the upper front teeth has been common practice for the last 60 years in Mitchells Plain and across Cape Town’s suburbs. It has been given many names such as Passion Gap, Cape Flats smile or Pap Bek. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for this localised body modification, but many explain that it is a fashion statement, good for kissing or makes oral sex better. One thing is for sure among the myths though, that it works as a tool to create identity especially among the poorest working class in the Coloured areas of South Africa. Jacqui Friedling, who is an anthropologist at University of Cape Town, explains:

Some dentures have normal white teeth, which can be used for work. There are also dentures with gold and gems that are used for social gatherings. It can be a way of showing identity and socioeconomic status within a community – to show wealth.

Studies show that only few South Africans among the middle class remove their front teeth – it is also not a fashionable thing to do for the countries rich population. Furthermore 75% of people with a passion gap identify as Coloured. There are some White, Black and Chinese people from the working class who extract theri healthy front teeth to get dentures or Passion gaps as they are known.

Ryan Müller, who is a Capetonian dentist, describes the practices of pulling out healthy front teeth as a “grim, absurd and strange tradition”:

As a dentist it is important to follow all the professional practices – just to be able to sleep at night. Any extraction of front teeth depend on what the local community will allow – people know exactly where to go for the cheapest price and where to get dentures. Rumours circulate fast.

Müller who himself grew up in Mitchells Plain and consider himself coloured, says that he grew up among people and family with the Passion Gap. Today he is the owner of a dentist clinic where the pulling of healthy upper front teeth is forbidden. This is due to proper dentist practices and that having no front teeth changes a person’s diet and ability to digest.

Gavin van Sensie, who is 37, damaged his front tooth as a teenager during a soccer match. He had both his front teeth removed by the dentist, but he would never advice his son to do the same. Nobody really knows the extent of the extractions, however a study showed that 41% had their front teeth removed of 2.167 respondents.

All photographs appearing on this site are property of Mads Nørgaard.