Two Dispatches from South Africa 2010

South African fans with vuvuzelas. Image:

1. With every team at the World Cup finals now having played their first match, one thing – or sound – has been ubiquitous throughout the tournament thus far: the buzzing drone of the vuvuzela. As of the beginning of this week, the BBC alone has received 545 complaints about the sound of the horns during matches.

News coverage of the topic has tended to canvass opinion almost exclusively from English supporters, and most of the complaints centre around the sound being ‘annoying’, focusing on how it drowns out the ‘away’ sounds of chants and brass bands. While English angst at this is understandable, it is nonetheless unfair and perhaps even hypocritical: surely to South African fans, repeated bars of ‘The Great Escape’ could be just as much an irritant?

This World Cup has been touted as a homecoming to the place where humanity was born, an opportunity to showcase not only South Africa but the whole of the African continent, to a world that often only sees its dark, poverty-stricken, war-ridden underbelly. The success of the opening game of the tournament was testimony to this great objective, but since then, the desire to put Africa and African culture at centre-stage has become selective. When individuals complain about the vuvuzelas, it is ostensibly because it is ‘ruining’ the spectacle of the World Cup; but the real problem seems to be the extent to which the horns create a different spectacle, one that they personally can’t relate to. The naysayers want an African World Cup that is not so … African. Like the design of the magnificent Soccer City Stadium, the vuvuzela is steeped in South African tradition. Its inclusion in the spectacle is to be welcomed, surely, as something that makes the 2010 World Cup distinctive, a noise which unambiguously shouts “this is South Africa, and we are growing in confidence, we are hosting the World Cup!”

My suggestion that British fans want an African World Cup that references their own limited exposure to the culture brings to mind a previous post on this blog entitled ‘A Trans-Atlantic Non-Sequitir’. I think what people expected on the stands was “a little djembe here, a little soukous rhythm there,” but basically the same sort of atmosphere that we have seen at the many World Cups preceding this one. The fact that some people don’t recognise or enjoy the sound of the vuvuzela is unfortunate, but it is no reason to suggest banning the instruments from the stands or editing them out of audio coverage. As long as the fans continue to bring them to the match, they should be welcomed. The World Cup should be a topographical event, and it would be a disappointment if the fans in South Africa felt they couldn’t play their vuvuzelas at games because it wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Love or hate the sound and the atmosphere it generates, their sheer volume at the tournament is testimony to the sense of community that it is hoped this World Cup will exhibit and promote.

by David Jackson

Diego Forlan scores the penalty that put Uruguay into a 2-0 lead over South Africa, 16/06/10. Image:

2. I wrote on this site a while back about the inexhaustible potential for compelling narrative with which sport provides us. The key factor in this, I intimated, is sport’s unpredictability – its let’s-create-this-situation-and-just-see-what-happens value. At the risk of simplifying a complex topic, I maintain that this is precisely what makes sport a great and vital part of our society. But it’s also what makes it one of the most frustrating constructs that we willingly welcome into our lives. As nobody needs reminding, South Africa lost their second World Cup group game last night to Uruguay, going down by a dispiriting three goals to nil. The host nation has never been eliminated from a World Cup before the knockout stage but it looks like this year might buck the trend. The gnawing question is – what now for the narrative of this tournament?

This tournament is remarkable because it is the first African World Cup – the narrative had therefore been pencilled in as one where the ‘Rainbow Nation’ lead their continent onto the world stage, and change the map world football for ever. Bafana Bafana, in every place but the pitch, have adequately represented this thrilling novelty, bringing artefacts long associated with African club football – see David’s article above – to a global audience. In the absence of any really good football, at least until fairly recently (I write this while watching Argentina’s thrilling performance against South Korea), it has been the vuvuzelas, the songs, and the exuberant fans of Bafana Bafana that have helped sustained neutral interest.

But now it looks like the songs will be silenced, the vuvuzelas will be turned down a notch, and the fans will disappear all to quickly. This sudden, imminent loss of a pre-tournament narrative thread is more deflating than any dark narrative shift a novel could take. The result is a feeling akin not wholly unlike grief. I desperately want to know that this tournament will produce a story that doesn’t consist entirely of repetition, disappointment and missed opportunities for renewal. Maybe I can take heart from last year’s Venice Biennale – not an altogether different prospect from the World Cup – which managed perfectly well at being interesting after curator Daniel Birnbaum chose to dismantle the Italian Pavilion, buoyed greatly by its internationalist ethos: maybe the concept, raised in the tournament’s opening ceremony, of humankind in all its variety returning to its ancestral home will become more important than the idea of the cradle of humanity reaching out to the wider world. There again, the atmosphere of the Venice Biennale is not dependent on positive outcomes for a partisan national crowd. So will Bafana Bafana get behind any African nation that makes progress in the tournament? (Pan-Africanism has its inconsistencies but it’s convincing in arenas like this.) Will England suddenly rise to the occasion and cause this nation, at least, to forget about this being an African tournament? Or – more likely – will something wild and totally unforeseen happen? It’s times like these when following sport becomes a totally debilitating experience. I can only wait, hope, and pray (in the most secular possible way) that South Africa’s likely exit doesn’t suck the life and drain the form from this carnival.

by Luke Healey


4 responses to “Two Dispatches from South Africa 2010

  1. I think in this arena at least, Pan-Africanism will win through. One aspect of the initial narrative of this tournament has been that, while it is being hosted in South Africa, this is really an Africa-wide tournament. Even at the opening ceremony, a section was dedicated to the African teams being represented together. Hopefully teams like Ghana and the Ivory Coast progress at least past the group stages.

  2. In an additional update, I have just learned that every African team in the competition use as a third kit (if needed) the same ‘African Unity’ shirt. Again, highly suggestive of a collective African investment in the competition.

  3. Firstly, in regards to David’s article, I completely agree. This is an African tournament and it should be celebrated an supported in a almost wholly African fashion (we must remember this a a world meeting of various cultures so there must be room for all!). However, I think one of the perceived problems that I found with the vuvuzelas is they tend to make the game sound boring. This may be because much of the football in the early stages was, in fact, boring (as England’s play has continued to be in both of their games) but sometimes I get feeling that, rather like the Mexican wave, they are used in a similar way to distract from the poor play on the pitch. Examples of this would be when the rhythmic, pulsating, use of the vuvuzelas tends to occur during a lull in play. I therefore believe a link has occurred between the noise and poor football. Nevertheless, the noise and atmosphere generated by the vibrations, mixed with the occasional faint chants of the opposing teams fans at times has be extraordinary and it would be totally wrong to even consider banning them from a world cup in SOUTH AFRICA.

    As for the second part of the article I have more to contend with although none of us will know for sure how the African fans will react to their team dropping out of the Cup. I would firstly say that it does look increasingly unlikely that an African team will even manage to pass the group stage although, as has already been said, one might, including Algeria (unfortunately!). If one does pass through into the second round, even if it is not SA, I am 100% certain that despite their dissopoinment the SA fans will be behind that team. On a realistic note, although nobody wants to see SA become the first team to get knocked out at the group stage one must remember that they are the lowest ranked team to ever host the finals. The SA fans would be extatatic if they were to scrape through by something short of a miracle but, even if they did, they will face Argentina and not many would bet on them surpassing the likes of Messi et al. My point is this, SA are not going to lose interest in his competition if they fail to make it through the round as they know it would be a huge ask to go further than the last 16. If they beat France on Tuesday, even if they do not progress, it will still be huge high for the host nation to finish on. If the way they have turned out to watch all of the matches is anything to go by, the party will only be getting started regardless; this is a world cup remember!

    As a final point, many SA people support numerous footballers, clubs, and second nations and will undoubtedly get behind their chosen team for the rest of the competition. Yes, all will be rooting for SA on tuesday and, yes, if they go out it will be matched with dissopointment, but as long as the SA team wear their hearts on their sleaves all will be well and we can look forward to more action, with plenty of atmosphere, from a World Cup that is not even in the 2nd round of matches yet and who’s people could not be more proud to be given the opportunity to play hosts to the World and, arguably, its greatest international competition.

    Come on England and Come on South Africa- no one wants to see the French win (except the French… obviously.)

  4. The Africa Unity Kit is made by Puma and therefore is only used by four of the six teams at the tournament. South Africa and Nigeria (Adidas) do not use it. A brief explanation of the design process can be found here:

    Pan-Africanism at this tournament is acute though. It would be interesting to see how this develops in the second round if Ghana (surely now the only team with a chance of progressing) make it through. Would they use the third kit? Would the local element in second round crowds be larger than in other matches? Would Ivorian, Nigerian and Cameroonian fans remain in South Africa to watch the Black Stars? While I’m uncertain as to whether the idiosyncrasies of the tournament rely too heavily on the continued involvement of the African teams (see the enthusiastic local support for England and Brazil) I really hope that we get the chance to compare an ‘African’ knock-out game with other fixtures.

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