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Postcard from Cape Town: Why vuvuzelas are important to the Cup


CAPE TOWN -- Amid the nearly constant displays of joy and beauty that have defined the World Cup -- the hundreds of thousands who swarmed into downtown Cape Town to watch the opening Bafana Bafana game on large screens; the sunsets over the ocean, each more stunning than the last; the pristine new stadium that glows through each night -- there are as many daily surprises to remind outsiders this is a place they cannot fully understand, and won't be able to after a month devoted mainly to the watching of soccer.

It is a place where a headline on the front page of Sunday's Cape Times newspaper included an article detailing the World Cup's potential negative impact on the local vulture population -- because traditional healers believe that smoking a vulture's brain can make one clairvoyant, helping one to foresee, among other things, the results of sports matches. It is a place where the latest issue of this nation's version of GQ magazine has a feature in which the editors test the efficacy of various brands of bulletproof vests. And it is a place where rental homes just 40 minutes outside the city come with manuals as to how to best combat marauding bands of baboons ("Keep doors and refrigerators locked tight; don't smile at them, as they might construe teeth-baring as a sign of aggression; make use of the provided paintball guns if you must").

This month has long been pitched as a time during which the world ought to draw closer, and particularly as an opportunity for Westerners to also come to appreciate many of the things that help define South Africa that are far more meaningful that the local wildlife, and that make it in some regards so very different from the places they call home. The tournament is less than a week old, but already there seems to be one element of it that threatens to overwhelm, and to entirely divert attention away from any sort of meaningful cultural exchange: that of the vuvuzela.

The BBC, which two days ago reported it had received 545 complaints about the sound of vuvuzelas during its broadcasts, might soon begin employing technology to cut it out of its audio, and ESPN has said it has done its best to minimize the blaring in its sound mix. The website Lifehacker recently posted instructions as to how viewers can adjust their televisions to filter out the noise.

Whatever viewers are hearing through their TV speakers is nothing compared to fans within the stadiums: the playing of the Italian and Paraguayan national anthems Tuesday night in Cape Town, before which the P.A. announcer demanded the horns not be blown out of respect, amounted to perhaps the only moment during which Western ear drums stopped vibrating. It was, to be sure, a relief, at least physically.

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You would be hard-pressed to find a local who will refuse to admit the noise of the vuvuzela is loud, and omnipresent, and, yes, even a bit annoying. But it would be equally difficult to find one who believes they ought to be banned from World Cup stadiums, as has been advocated by so many outsiders. "BLOW THOSE VUVUZELAS" commanded the lead headline in Wednesday's Cape Times, in advance of South Africa's ultimately unsuccessful match against Uruguay. Vaviriro Gabi, a research assistant at the University of Cape Town who is in her mid-20s, explained to me the South African way of addressing their drone. "There is one way, and only one way, to handle the vuvuzela," she said. "Blow back harder. Fight fire with fire!"

Wednesday, June 16, was Youth Day here, a holiday that commemorates the Soweto Uprising of 1976, in which police forces massacred hundreds of students in that Johannesburg township who were protesting the government's forcing of all students to be taught in Afrikaans, the language of the oppressive white minority. The event -- and particularly an iconic photo of the dying Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old who was one of the first to be killed -- helped to galvanize the anti-apartheid movement both within South Africa and abroad, though it would still take 18 more years for it to be abolished.

To visitors attending the World Cup this month, it seems virtually impossible that this nation remained the home to one of the most abhorrent racial policies of modern times as recently as 16 years ago -- but not to those who lived through it and suffered under it, and not to Desmond Tutu, the 79-year-old former Archbishop of Cape Town, apartheid resistance leader and winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize.

"Twak twak! Absolute twaddle," Tutu said at a Youth Day celebration, about the international call to ban vuvuzelas. "You've come to SA and you are going to enjoy everything that's South African. I say blow them even louder." Later, he said to a group of 250 vuvuzela-playing students, "You and I, old and young, now have a very precious thing, this freedom that was bought with the lives and blood of all -- young and old, black and white."

In the large color photo in the Cape Times on Thursday, the Archbishop Emeritus is seen with his hands planted firmly over his ears -- but with a smile on his face that could not possibly be broader. That photo, in effect, sums up the South African view of the long plastic horns that have so quickly become so controversial. Outsiders, rather justifiably, view them as a serious nuisance; players have suggested they might be impacting the quality of play. South Africans agree they're loud, but the people of all races who blow them -- not just in the stadiums but also on the streets, in restaurants, in the mall at the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, in the Pick and Pay supermarket -- view them as an expression of joy and of freedom, and take pride in doing so in places where not so very long ago, they would not have been legally permitted to celebrate at all.

Over the Cup's remaining three weeks, it is as unlikely that Westerners will come to tolerate the unavoidable sound of the vuvuzela as it is that FIFA will ban them, or that South Africans will stop tooting them. That's fine, and it's understandable. But it would be a shame, and a serious blow to the accomplishment that has so far constituted the unprecedented hosting of an event like this in a place like South Africa, if the noise emitted from this long plastic horn ends up constituting the central memory of foreigners of this World Cup, and if we do not at least take a moment to think about why South Africans blow them with gusto.