By Duane Jethro Culture is on everybody’s lips. Another game at the fan park: Spain vs Switzerland, if I remember correctly. Cold beer in hand, I am engaging in conversation with a middle-aged gentleman about the World Cup vibe. It’s a chilly, grey day and the sparse crowd is quiet, subdued, passively absorbing Spain’s demise. Minutes later, a group of about 10 or so excited Bafana Bafana supporters congregate in my vicinity and start generating some gees. They sing popular local songs in isiXhosa, and blow their vuvuzelas in time to the tune, all the while drawing foreign bystanders into the enticing rhythm.
The scene is priceless and I remark that once people get hold of vuvuzelas they go mad. “Ja, ma wat kan jy doen is os culture”, [Yes, but what can you do, it’s our culture], he replies curtly. “A culture van geraas maak en tekeere gaan?” [A culture of making a noise and showing off], I cheekily quip. “En Party” [And partying], he adds, and we both laugh.
Just then an excited female South African fan comes bounding by, blasting her vuvuzela wildly past the gentleman’s face. “Blaas it in’ie lig, nie in ons gesigte nie” [Blow it up in the air, not in people’s faces] he complains. “Haybo Mr, this is South Africa, vuvuzela is our culture”.
This notion had been pointed out to me some days before already when I approached an elderly lady to find out how she felt about vuvuzelas and the idea that it was an African thing. She emphatically declared that “my boy, [the vuvuzela] is our culture. You must be proud. This is your inheritance. This is what we struggled for during apartheid”.
Outside of the fan park, the word culture is inescapable, featuring daily in the print and digital media, in advertisements and in the conversation of everyday, ordinary people. And in most cases these discussions about culture probably had to do with vuvuzelas. This little plastic horn, in the context of all the media attention during the World Cup, has really got South Africans talking about national culture and cultural identity.
The incidents cited above highlight three of the most common ways the vuvuzela elicited the word culture amongst the South African public. In the first instance, culture is something that is to be put on display, on show, out in the public, as a mark of the nation’s cultural distinctiveness. Secondly, culture is invoked as a means of defense when questions about the legitimacy or tastefulness of certain beliefs and practices are raised. Thirdly, culture is something which cannot be explained but its existence is always beyond question.
The way people talk about culture here is not unique, but it is really interesting because, since the fall of apartheid, South Africans have struggled to forge a truly united national identity. During this time, sport has emerged as one of a few common denominators that touch the hearts of South Africans from all walks of life. This has lead many to suggest that the World Cup has been a real plus for helping to unite the nation. As a friend of mine remarked, seeing the number of South Africans in the stadiums out to watch the games, suggested to him that the kind of togetherness the tournament fostered is priceless.
All this engagement with and about culture does have its drawbacks. Since the start of the World Cup there has been an outbreak of a condition known as vuvuzela lips – a particular cracking and swelling of the front, centre lip tissue, not unlike a bee sting, that results from excessive, rapturous blasting of the horn. Like I said at the beginning, culture is on everybody’s lips.
Duane Jethro is a PhD Student at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology of VU University Amsterdam. His research focuses on post-apartheid cultural heritage initiatives and takes place as part of the NWO project Heritage Dynamics. He is currently conducting fieldwork in South Africa and regularly writes reports about the World Cup for Standplaats Wereld.