Notes from South Africa 2010: On the Invention of Tradition

The clichéd tourist fare in South Africa outside the World Cup seems to mostly involve two components: big animals and ‘traditional’ dances.  To the dismay of almost every South African I meet, I’m not much of a big animal person.  The famous game parks, no matter how spectacular, are not on my itinerary.  The ‘traditional’ dances, however, are harder to avoid.  They are also, in my experience, harder to make sense of in this World Cup of vuvuzelas and the invention of tradition.

At halftime of the Spain v Switzerland game I found myself watching just such a dance from a picnic table in the large courtyard of an ‘entertainment lounge’ across the street from Loftus Versfeld stadium (where South Africa was to play Uruguay later in the evening).  I had made my way to the stadium neighborhood to check out the scene and see if there was any chance the touts had tickets for the South Africa game.  They did—but the price was exorbitant, and it just made more sense to find a pub and settle in.

The place I found would not have been out of place in an up-scale suburban American mall on Super Bowl Sunday.  There was an affluent crowd in uniforms and face paint, happy to pay a relatively high cover charge and drink prices to be amongst others who felt the same.  Local college students, almost all attractive white females, had been trucked in to sell drinks from specific sponsors.  I’ve never been asked so many times ‘would you like a Jaeger bomb?”  The number of servers was only matched by the number of foreign media conspicuous with their credentials and their determination to find ‘true’ images and sounds of South Africa.

Enter the dancers.  It was a cold night, most of us were bundled in ski parkas and woolen caps huddling around barrel fires in the courtyard, but three men dressed only in skirt-style loincloths and feathers appeared suddenly amidst the crowd.  As the halftime entertainment, they jumped on the stage with only their drums and staffs by way of introduction.  To the crowd’s great pleasure, indicated by flag waving and vuvuzela blowing, they danced and gyrated for several minutes before being ferreted away by one of the eager foreign camera crews for an interview.

In their stead several white South Africans from the crowd, bundled in green and yellow Adidas parkas,  jumped onto the stage and improvised their own version of a war dance—pretending the microphone stand was a spear, and the beer company poster a shield.  They too received an enthusiastic response, though I couldn’t be sure if it was for their enthusiasm or their satire.  The South African couple next to me at the table smiled: “White South Africans just love these dances.”

Why?  The dances do, of course, have some distant origins in the ‘traditions’ of South Africa—but they are hardly a part of contemporary daily life.  Amongst the masses of people I’ve seen here no one other than those halftime dancers has worn just a loincloth.  The popularity of these dances, and perhaps also the vuvuzelas, instead seems to me more reflective of the complicated process anthropologists call the ‘invention of tradition:’

“In a famous essay on the invention of tradition in colonial Africa, Terence Ranger insisted that social and cultural traditions were invented and manipulated by both Europeans and Africans to serve their own interests. Specifically, elders, men, ruling aristocracies, and indigenous people appealed to “tradition.” The elders did so in order to defend their dominance over the rural means of production against challenges from the youth; men wanted to retain control against women, who were playing an increasingly important role in the rural areas, especially in regions dominated by male migrant labor; ruling aristocracies sought to maintain or extend their control over their subjects; and indigenous people were anxious to ensure that migrants who settled among them did not achieve political or economic rights. This model became popular for analyzing the contexts in which various cultural and social practices in colonial Africa developed—from music and dance to law and marriage.”

In the context of this World Cup, the notion of traditions being employed by ruling aristocrats brings to mind Sepp Blatter and his perspective on the vuvuzela (as was quoted in the June 15th Johannesburg Star): “I have always said that Africa has a different rhythm, a different sound… I don’t see banning the music traditions of fans in their own country.  Would you want to see a ban on the fan traditions in your country?”  As many have pointed out, however, just how ‘traditional’ are one-note plastic trumpets manufactured in China?

As with the dances, the vuvuzelas do have some basis in the history of the region; it is true that some tribal groups used kudu horns as part of ceremony and ritual.  But as the ‘invention of tradition’ concept suggests, ‘culture’ is always dynamic and often used as a chit in broader power relationships.  In that vein, part of what is interesting about seeing the vuvuzelas in South Africa is how many of the people blowing it are tourists and white South Africans jumping on the soccer bandwagon.

They are, I believe, genuinely enthusiastic and well-meaning.  But as we all now know, that enthusiasm has side-effects: the vuvuzelas drown out any possibility of other types of fan culture, while the dancers at halftime of Spain v Switzerland invent an illusion of what it means to be African.  These patterns are not, of course, specific to Africa.  At the last World Cup I’m sure there were many German half-time shows involving lederhosen, while sports ‘traditions’ such as New Zealand’s Haka dance could qualify as a meaningful ‘invention.’  But in South Africa the inventions seem more loaded: if nothing else, it is just too cold here to be out and about in just a skirt-style loincloth.

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