Friday, August 20, 2010

Is South Africa just one big vuvuzela?

There were moments of brilliance on the pitch during the 2010 World Cup, but it was what happened off the pitch that grabbed the most attention.

The media were obsessed with the presence of Diego Maradona as he minced about like a diminutive rotund action man squeezed into a suit against his will. The Jabulani ball and its tendency to balloon into the crowd when struck from a free kick (unless by Diego Forlan) also provided for hours of discussion. The cheating from players feigning injury to more serious incidents, such as the blatant handball by Uruguay to deny Ghana a place in the semifinal, also produced much chitchat.

However, the clear winner, when it came to off-the-pitch distraction, was the vuvuzela. For the entire tournament, pundits, fans and even those with no interest in football were talking about it. Everyone had an opinion on the noisy horn. There were Facebook petitions to have it banned as well as voracious calls for its recognition as the cultural symbol of African football and, hence, for its preservation.

Since the end of the World Cup, debate has continued. Several English Premiership teams have banned the vuvuzela from their grounds. At Wimbledon, there was much anxiety that someone might sully the Centre Court with a long droning honk, and it was hastily outlawed. There is also now a dispute over who owns the vuvuzela from a commercial perspective. Several companies have tried to register the trademark. Masincedane Sports, which has been producing the instrument since 2001, reached a compensation deal with the Shembe Church, in South Africa, about ownership, even though the final decision is still pending on whether Masincedane owns the trademark. The church claims that it invented the instrument in 1910 with a view to using it in religious ceremonies. The vuvuzela is, apparently, useful in driving out demons.

Practically speaking, however, the vuvuzela really belongs to the people of South Africa, and now the world. UK supermarket giant Sainsbury’s is said to have sold over 50 000 vuvuzelas. You can even buy them from online global retailer Amazon.
Perhaps the reason for its success is that, in many senses, the vuvuzela is a lot like South Africa.

The vuvuzela gets noticed. It draws attention to itself. It has touched the inter- national imagination. Just like South Africa. This is in part a result of apartheid, which captured the global consciousness for decades. But the focus on South Africa is also a result of the fact that South Africans, seemingly, like to voice their concerns. Whether talking about the demise of apartheid, the Rainbow Nation, crime, HIV/Aids or the state of the economy, we like the world to know what is going on. This is partly about being located at the southern tip of Africa, which results in a need to feel connected globally.

But it is also likely that the desire to externalise issues is deeply cultural. It is, I believe, how we, as South Africans, solve problems. This tendency has helped South Africa to deal with many historical challenges. But it has also meant that we, as South Africans, can be as much to blame for the negative coverage of our country as the international media.

We have all met the South Africans abroad who are only too willing to enlighten people about what a terrible country it now is (often with a racial subtext implying ‘now that apartheid has ended’), leaving listeners determined never to go there.

So, while verbalising our problems helped us in the past, the question is: How can we talk about real problems like wealth disparity and the relative crime problem while communicating all that is positive about South Africa at the same time? This may seem like a complex challenge, but, if a simple plastic trumpet can signal joy, exhilaration, celebration, exuberance, unity, disappointment, dismay, and alarm, then, surely, so can we.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, August 2010. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 20 August 2010.