About a year ago, one of my Canadian classmates asked me a strange question: “What’s that loud buzzing sound in the background of all the FIFA Confederations Cup matches? It’s so annoying !” It took me a moment to realize what he was talking about, and then I clicked: vuvuzelas. “A vuvu-what?” he replied when I answered his question, “what is that?” My friend, like most of the Western world at the time, had never in his life seen, heard, or heard of the vuvuzela, but this was about to change, with South Africa being the host of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. A few months later when I flew back to Johannesburg for the World Cup, I had one request from the very same friend that asked me about the “loud buzzing” a few months earlier, “please get me a vuvuzela!”
Thanks to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the Vuvuzela has now taken the world by storm and become the icon of South African soccer culture. Soccer fans worldwide can’t wait to get their hands on vuvuzelas, and even people who don’t even watch soccer want to own one. For those who don’t have access to a physical vuvuzela, there is always the vuvuzela app, or this ten-hour-long vuvuzela YouTube track. Here in Vancouver, vuvuzelas have been in such high demand that their first shipment, which arrived just before the start of the World Cup in June, sold out in one day.
As someone who grew up in South Africa, the recent global vuvuzela-mania has fascinated me. Until the 2010 World Cup, I never gave vuvuzelas a second thought – they were simply a part of my daily life. When we had sports tournaments at school, everyone brought vuvuzelas. When there was a local or national soccer tournament, everyone brought vuvuzelas. When there were strikes or protests in the city, everyone had vuvuzelas. And the background “buzzing” in the Confederations Cup soccer matches that had annoyed my friend, was something I didn’t even notice. But suddenly, vuvuzelas had become a novelty. In the past, vuvuzelas could only be bought on street corners from local street vendors, and only came in one basic plastic design. But when I arrived back in South Africa for the world cup I was surprised to see that vuvuzelas were being sold everywhere – at the airport, in malls, in corner stores, in supermarkets, in restraunts – and these were not the basic plastic vuvuzelas I had seen growing up in South Africa, instead, these world cup vuvuzelas were available in any colour, shape or size. Many of them were country-specific, with designs incorporating the names and flags of competing countries; others were more elaborate, encrusted with jewels and feathers. I was (not) shocked to hear that a Russian businessman paid £20 000 to have a personalized vuvuzela made for the World Cup final – he had it plated in white gold and encrusted with precious stones, including a giant diamond in its centre.
What fascinated me most about the outburst of vuvuzela-mania is that vuvuzelas became so popular without any form of advertising. During the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the Hudson’s Bay red mittons were also extremely popular, but these mittons were marketed and sold by Hudson’s Bay – a massive corporation. In contrast, vuvuzelas were not formally advertised by any company – they were simply a local product being sold by local vendors literally on street corners and at soccer matches, but despite this, they became popular worldwide. Before the world cup, the outside world had never heard of the vuvuzela, but by the end of the world cup, everyone knew exactly what it was, where it was from, how much it cost, how to use it, and where to buy it.
In the West we see companies designing products and figuring out ways to make people buy them, but with vuvuzelas this situation was reversed – companies began exporting vuvuzelas around the world because people were demanding the product. When tourists first came to South Africa for the world cup they saw locals using vuvuzelas and also started buying them, either to use at the matches, or to take home as souvenirs and presents. When the world watched the FIFA World Cup matches on tv and saw everyone using vuvuzelas, the vuvuzela became a symbol of South African soccer culture and the 2010 World Cup, and global vuvuzela-mania ensued.
Despite its global popularity, the noise levels that were demonstrated during the 2010 FIFA World Cup prompted various sporting organisations to ban the vuvuzela at future events and venues (a full list of the bans can be seen here). However, FIFA permitted their used in stadiums during the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup and 2010 FIFA World Cup, with FIFA President Sepp Blatter arguing that FIFA “should not try to Europeanise an African World Cup … that is what African and South Africa football is all about – noise, excitement, dancing, shouting and enjoyment.” This was reiternated by many, including commentator Farayi Mungazi who argued that “Banning the vuvuzela would take away the distinctiveness of a South African World Cup … absolutely essential for an authentic South African footballing experience”.
As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, and when you’re in South Africa, whether you like it or not, you gotta do the Vuvuzela! Hate it or love it, it’s the sound of South Africa, and its here to stay.