It is the summer of the vuvuzela, and people are marching through the streets blowing those obnoxious plastic horns that seem to be a staple of South African fan craze. The vuvuzela has been around for the past decade, usually at matches between local soccer clubs like Orlando Pirates or Kaizer Chiefs, whose players and fans are mostly black. Historically, soccer was the “black” sport, while rugby and cricket were the domain of whites with Afrikaner or British ancestry. Soccer now seems to be gaining widespread popularity, in part because South Africa is hosting the World Cup, and people who a few years ago might not even have known if the national soccer team had a match are now donning Bafana’s bright yellow colors and piling into stadiums, bars and fan parks to cheer on their team. (Bafana Bafana means “the boys” in Zulu, and refers to the South African soccer team.)
The World Cup has disrupted the traditional racial hierarchy of sports in SA, at least temporarily bringing different populations of the country together. The finals of the Super 14 rugby tournament were displaced from the home side’s usual stadium, in use for World Cup matches between Spain and Chile (among others), to Orlando Stadium in Soweto. Formally known as the South West Township, Soweto is a black township (in)famous for Apartheid-era protests and violence.
Most of the white South Africans that I’ve met have never been inside Soweto because they are afraid of crime or they “have no reason to go there, really.” A lot of South Africans, irrespective of race, were surprised to hear that I had stayed there – even though I’m part Japanese, I am still seen as umlungu (the Zulu word for “white man”), a rare sight even today for the predominantly black Sowetan residents. I soon became used to the stares, greetings and cheers that I got on my morning runs. I was staying in Orlando West, a nice neighborhood that was ten minutes’ easy jog from the stadium where rugby came to play.
On the night of the Super 14 final, triumphant Blue Bulls supporters of all races trumpeted their vuvuzelas and embraced each other in the streets. I was surprised to see such a widespread racial mix of friends joining each other for drinks in the popular, but technically illegal, drinking houses called shebeens. The night passed without the muggings or other incidents that some had feared. By moving the rugby to Soweto and bringing a country together behind Bafana Bafana, the World Cup has achieved some Invictus-style reconciliation through sport. Sights during my time here remind me of scenes from the movie, which documents Nelson Mandela’s use of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to unite a fragile new nation in the wake of Apartheid.
Not everyone likes the vuvuzela – it disrupts communication amongst the players and coaches, drowns out the chants and songs that give a special atmosphere to European soccer matches, and will probably lead to hearing loss like the kind that our parents are starting to experience as a result of a few too many rock concerts in their youths. Still, it adds a distinctive character to the 19th iteration of the World Cup. The vuvuzela is unique to South Africa, and it seems unfair to begrudge the hosts bringing a bit of South African style to the tournament. I figured that I’d like join in the fun as well, so I got a vuvuzela of my own, and I can blast away with the rest of the chorus.