Op-Ed Spotlight: The False 'Tradition' of Vuvuzelas

Celebrate something else about South African culture

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"Is it just me," asked National Review's John Miller a few days ago, "or does it sound like these games are played in beehives?" A plastic horn called the vuvuzela has infiltrated the World Cup--make that inundated. Its defenders say it's part of South African culture, even while detractors figure out how to remove the sound from broadcasts and ban the horn from future sporting events.

But Fouad Ajami, professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, says the whole cultural argument is nonsense to begin with. Vuvuzelas escaped an outright ban at the FIFA World Cup through claiming to be traditional, he says--and that's a lie.


It was inevitable that the tacky plastic horns would be given sanctity and pedigree. In one telling, these instruments are the modern-day version of the Kudo horn blown to summon African villagers to communal meetings. In another, the vuvuzelas emerged from the culture of the townships and a history of oppression.

Soccer hooliganism (with a huge edge there for British fans) should be envious. It never had that sort of ideological justification.


The authenticity of the dreaded plastic horns--like the historical legitimacy of all such cults--is of course false. The vuvuzela has nothing to do with Africa's villages. Its history dates back, well, to the summer of 2009, when the Confederations Cup took place in South Africa itself. The horns turned up, and they were to alter the culture of the game. FIFA's leaders now pay tribute to a contrived tradition.


There is no need for South Africans to claim the vuvuzelas as their distinct contribution to the culture of soccer. More impressive to me was the grace of the South Africans--players and spectators alike--when the referee red-carded the South African goalkeeper and sent him off during a match with Uruguay.

Forgive the stereotype, but a South American crowd would have rioted in the face of a call of that kind. There is high culture and there is low culture: This grace was South Africa telling the world something about itself and its temper.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.