14 June 2010


The sound of South Africa

The vuvuzela is the symbol of the 2010 World Cup. It’s a one metre plastic trumpet, something like the Brazilian corneta, really loud and raucous. At its best a vuvuzela sounds like a fog horn.

Everyone has a vuvuzela. In their tens of thousands, in the beautiful new soccer stadiums, they have the sonic effect of massed rocket launchers, deafening foreign players and commentators. The locals are already deaf. You also hear vuvuzelas blown on the streets everywhere in Cape Town, and in houses, in hotel rooms, on the upper floor balconies of the bars on Long Street as the procession of fans goes by every evening. On the unfinished section of highway bridge near the water, Hyundai, the car company, has rigged up a 114 foot long vuvuzela. When a goal is scored the giant horn will be electronically triggered.

In South Africa there is always a casualty. This time a drunk driver, on his way back from the kick-off concert in Soweto, kills 13-year-old Zenani Mandela, Nelson’s great grand-daughter. The old President, who must be the most beautiful old man in the world, has a new cause for grief.

Besides grief, and the vuvuzela, South Africa is also the land of the cliché. On government television the country is presented in a string of incompatible clichés: the modernity of bullet trains and skyscrapers, the traditionalism of caveman paintings and Zulu dancers, the diversity of white and brown and black, and, more than this, the unity of television world where we all have the same thing to say to the same camera and all the scenes have been staged by Oprah Winfrey, who has much the same popularity here as in the US.

The least examined cliché is the idea that we can play soccer and have a shot in the World Cup. Bafana Bafana (“the Boys, the Boys”) are ranked 83rd in the world. Who are the 82 countries in front of us? Our antagonists in Group A include France, Mexico, and Uruguay. When we don’t make it out of the first round, what will we blow our vuvuzelas for until July 11?

The clichés themselves aren’t always so objectionable. Nor are they entirely our own fault. In the 1980s and 1990s we bore the projected interest of the rest of the world in racial peace-making. If now South Africa calls itself the Rainbow Nation—as yet without a pot of gold—then that cliché has more to do with an American idea about diversity than anything which is in our hearts. And by half time of the first match, with South Africa struggling to divide possession of the ball with Mexico, the commentators were sternly instructing Bafana to “pull up their socks.” The phrase instantly returned me to my boarding school days which drilled into me a hatred for such cheerily good wisdom prescribed by the schoolmaster and the coach and the Anglican church warden.

And there are worse clichés than the merely pious. In the run up to the World Cup even usually intelligent publications like Harper’s and the London Review of Books were replicating the hoariest clichés in sight. Each magazine had rented out space to its useful idiot. In the LRB, R.W. Johnson, who has long since turned himself into a cliché of the 1950s Tory, was promising nothing but corruption in this World Cup, along with violence and black magic (“producing [soccer] pitches that are unplayable because of all the lucky charms and folk medicines which have been jammed into them”), as well as the ritual slaughter of animals on the soccer field just before every game. I looked carefully at the first match yesterday. I didn’t see any animals being slaughtered, and not a whole lot of witchcraft either, except the undeniable black magic of the vuvuzela.

Johnson denounced us from the right. In Harper’s Breyten Breytenbach, the radical Afrikaans poet, denounced us from the left (as “Fuckland,” to use his name for South Africa.) The Afrikaans-language establishment reveres Breytenbach ever more as he denounces them. But even if you weren’t skeptical about the poverty of Breytenbach’s vocabulary and the inflexibility of his thinking, you might wonder at the speed at which he went from denouncing the racial policies of the old government to denouncing the new dispensation. You might even ask whether Breytenbach’s style of denouncing everyone and everything doesn’t produce certain hazards of its own.

At least, by denouncing, Breytenbach revs himself up and creates a general frisson. The aged rock-and-roller and pseudo-intellectual Riaan Malan, author of the international bestseller My Traitor’s Heart, charting his break with Afrikaner nationalism, has simply been depressed in his capacity as a white man in Africa. In our future he sees nothing but “duisterness” (darkness). One might better see “duisterness” in our past, where Riaan Malan was born into privilege, than in a present where the government, despite all its faults, has brought water and electricity and housing and some measure of education and public health to the majority of the population. I suppose Malan has the honesty to wonder if this “duisterness” isn’t because he’s been neglecting his medication.

The point isn’t Malan, Breytenbach, or R.W. Johnson. It’s the great audience for their clichés. In fact white readers in the US and the UK., whether of the right or the left, of the colonial camp or the post-colonial, have generally been interested in how white people, so mysteriously like but unlike themselves, are doing in South Africa. It’s this long distance fantasy which, for good or ill, does most to explain South African literary culture from Nadine Gordimer and Alan Paton in the 1950s to John Coetzee in the 1990s. And a fantasy is nothing but a cliché.

For good reason the reality of the country is not capturable in a cliché of the left or the right. South Africa has a left-wing government, a left-wing doctrine of transformation and inclusion and equalization, a flourishing Communist Party and labour movement, and a right-wing way of doing almost everything. Politics, and business, and literature, and private medicine, and family life, and, yes, sport are run, by and large, in a conservative, hierarchical, and unquestioning mode, rigid with old school Christianity and patriarchy.

So the vuvuzela is a rare popular intrusion into the top-down and highly corporatized World Cup operation, as organized by FIFA and the government, sponsored by Coca Cola, coached by the Brazilian Carlos Alberto Gomes Parreira, and protected, according to what I hear, by Israeli security companies. In all this the vuvuzela reminds us that soccer is a black and working-class sport in a country whose cricket and rugby teams, among the best in the world, are still very much the extension of a privileged and mostly white sports infrastructure.

The vuvuzela has its critics. Dr. Ruth McNerney, of the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine, warned the Associated Press that “vuvuzelas have the potential to spread colds and flu” on a great scale. But on the first day of the World Cup, which was crisp and clear in Cape Town, it was impossible to sympathize with this point of view. With the mountain free of cloud and splendid in the winter sunshine it was easy to believe that this is the most beautiful city in the world. The Bafana pulled up its socks in the second half and Siphiwe Tshabalala, winger for the beloved Soweto team Kaizer Chiefs, scored the very first goal of the World Cup.

The game ended in a draw, despite Siphiwe’s brilliance. But the important thing is that we hadn’t lost yet, which is a very South African state of being. It was even possible to believe that we could play soccer.

Image: "SWC Soccer Fest," 2010. Axel Bührmann. Creative Commons via Flickr: flickr.com/photos/snapeverything.


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