The mogul and the damage done

Neil van Schalkwyk is much meeker than the metre-long plastic horn for which he’s responsible

Hussein Malla/AP

Vuvuzelas roar to life at dawn in South Africa, like many wild beasts that roam the savannah. Their single, painful note bellows from dusty shantytowns to air-conditioned shopping malls. They merge into packs at game time and wail as one in the streets, startling World Cup visitors who spin around in search of elephants.

Yes, the innovator of the vuvuzela admits—the noise keeps him up at night, too.

Neil van Schalkwyk, 37, is meeker than the metre-long plastic horn for which he’s responsible. He arrives at a press conference in Cape Town in a sweater vest and leans back against his chair, away from the microphone. Speak up, the reporters shout. He was not expecting any of this.
Van Schalkwyk grew up in Lansdowne, a working-class neighbourhood south of Cape Town.

The former teenage professional soccer player first remembers hearing a tin horn trumpet at a game in Cape Town when he scored an equalizing goal as a defender. At the time, chants and singing reigned at matches. But, van Schalkwyk points out, in a multicultural country with 11 official languages, not everyone was joining in the tradition.

“The one language they do understand is the 12th language of the vuvuzela.”

South Africa’s 12th language is about to go global. Van Schalkwyk has been contacted by a potential distributor in Russia and two in Brazil, the host country for the 2014 World Cup. This is a disaster, say the vuvuzela critics, who accuse the horn of ruining the stadium atmosphere, disturbing the players’ concentration and causing hearing damage. English coach Fabio Capello had them banned from the hotel where his team is staying.

Van Schalkwyk politely apologizes for the racket, but insists he has lost more sleep over the vuvuzela than anyone else. As an employee at a plastics factory in the late 1990s, he would stay for hours after his shift to perfect a plastic model of the original homemade tin horn he’d heard. “Vuvuzela” comes from the Zulu word for shower—the instrument showers you with noise.

Since mass distribution began in 2001, South Africans have snatched up the horn, which costs 30 South African rand (CDN$4). Just before the start of the World Cup, a monstrous 37-metre vuvuzela was mounted on an unfinished highway en route to Cape Town’s Green Point Stadium. Now, international visitors are buying up the official version—and the knock-offs, which represent 75 per cent of the market. But van Schalkwyk urges fans to buy the original version­—its smooth mouthpiece, he says, prevents cracked “vuvuzela lip.”

It has also made him seven million rand (CDN$950,000) over the past 10 years. With soccer fever in the country hotter than ever, business has exploded—but so has at least one local woman’s windpipe. Yvonne Mayer, 29, was apparently left unable to speak or eat for two days after she blew her vuvuzela too hard in the streets of Cape Town.

Yes, his company has product liability insurance if a lawsuit is launched. Van Schalkwyk looks around uncomfortably. The newest version, released just in time for the tournament, takes strides toward consumer safety. This vuvuzela comes in three pieces so that it would break if used as a weapon. It peaks at 13 decibels lower than the original, which could exceed 130 decibels. That still makes it louder than a chainsaw.

In South Africa, the vuvuzela is everywhere, incorporated into church services and turned into the latest ring tone. It is on the lips of enthusiastic Argentines, frustrated Brits and hopeful Ghanaians. The party is only going to spread. South African Airways permits vuvuzelas as carry-on luggage on international flights. They request only that you not blow the horn in flight. Bon voyage.

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