In defence of the vuvuzela
CAPE TOWN - United Kingdom websites are abuzz with comments from irate football fans who complain about the blowing of the Vuvuzela during matches of the Fifa World Cup in South Africa. The vast majority of these comments call for the banning of the instrument from stadiums. Sensitive British football fans (if that is not a contradiction in terms) complain about the noise, which they claim is so loud and irritating that it becomes impossible to watch a game with the sound on the television turned up.
Africans are known for their singing and dancing, some claim, but this is now all drowned out by the incessant noise from Vuvuzela's. The background noise to the world cup has become the sound of a huge swarm of bees. This spoils the atmosphere of the football game as one can hardly hear the fans cheering and singing.
In any case, this would never have been allowed at any Football World Cup organized in Europe, so why allow it in South Africa? It is just plain rude to make such a racket when the whole world is watching. This is just not how things are done in Europe, where TV viewers are used to the atmosphere provided by the singing, chanting and shouting of the spectators. The Vuvuzela is spoiling the whole world cup for Europeans!
Now, I am not sure if I am watching the same television feed as the British, but the claim that the noise made by Vuvuzela's at football games is so loud that it makes it impossible to watch the game on television with the sound turned on seems just plain ridiculous. At most it provides a background noise which might be monotonous but surely is not ear-splitting. So, why are so many people so upset?
Of course, the critics are entitled to express their dislike of the soundtrack to the 2010 World Cup. Let's face it, that buzzing noise is not the most musical or attractive sound that human kind is capable of producing, and expressing a dislike for the Vuvuzela is therefore perfectly understandable. Personally I have come to love the whole Vuvuzela thing - especially the vibe it generates when one is there at the match oneself - but I understand that, like olives or blue cheese, this is an acquired taste not shared by all.
But something about the tenor of all these complaints have gotten up my nose. Maybe I am overtly sensitive or maybe I am intellectualizing something that is no more than a personal preference, but I smell more than a whiff of cultural imperialism in much of the criticism of our beloved Vuvuzela.
It seems to me what underlies much of the criticism, is a set of rather problematic assumptions.
First, much of the criticism seems to assume that the norm of what should be acceptable (and therefore permissible), must be based on what happens in Europe. "This is how we do it in Europe. We know best and always have. Therefore you must follow our example like good imperial subjects to demonstrate to us that you are also civilized and up to our standards."
This rather blinkered and prejudiced lack of respect for difference suggests that many critics of the Vuvuzela labour under a false sense of cultural superiority. They view their cultural and social beliefs and practices as the undisputed norm to which all others must conform, without any understanding of, or respect for, the multitude of ways in which different societies and people might have chosen different ways of being in the world. This is the very essence of cultural imperialism.
Second, all the talk about Africans being such good singers and dancers and complaints that viewers are missing out on this because of the Vuvuzela, plays on a racial stereotype. It is as if, having been exposed to stereotypical images of the happy dancing and singing natives, some of the critics cannot come to grips with a very different narrative of what South Africa is all about. What they want, perhaps, is for all of us to sing and dance and smile - just like the performers in Ipi Tombi and Umoja who have been entertaining the baas in theaters in the West End for many years.
Now we have the cheek not to conform to the stereotypes they have been expecting to have confirmed. Instead, we have taken to this cheap, plastic trumpet (for better or for worse) and have made it the soundtrack to the Soccer World Cup - which is really their Soccer World Cup - and thus have shown an agency and an independence of mind and spirit which we as the erstwhile colonized are not supposed to possess.
In the process, we have taken something away from them - their World Cup experience as they want it! - and made it into something slightly different. We are not playing by the rules, which dictate that we should be grateful for having been selected to host the World Cup and we should consequently make sure that we provide a World Cup experience to Europeans as close as possible to what they are used to and what they expect.
Sadly I suspect it is not much use to point out the cultural imperialism underlying some of the criticism of the Vuvuzela. If one is so deep in denial about one's own prejudices, and so blind to the fact that one is embedded in (and to some extent a prisoner of) a particular culture, it is difficult to accept that one's own views and normative commitments are not universal and inherently superior truths handed down by God, but merely one of many ways of making sense of the world.
Maybe it's better to laugh and shrug one's shoulders - while putting some extra effort into blowing your Vuvuzela as loud as possible.
Pierre de Vos is the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Constitutional Governance at the University of Cape Town. This article first appeared on the Constitutionally Speaking weblog.
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