Unholy row over World Cup trumpet

Kwa-Shangase, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa - Members of a traditional South African religion say they have begun legal action to stop a controversial plastic trumpet, locally known as the vuvuzela, being played at this year's World Cup.

Football's governing body Fifa has given its backing to the vuvuzela but there have been widespread complaints that the incessant noise is both irritating and a distraction to players and spectators during matches.

Now part of South African football tradition, the vuvuzela can trace its non-sporting origins back to the early 1900s.

In 1910 Isaiah Shembe founded what he called the Nazareth Baptist Church, a religion now better known just as Shembe.

A loose combination of Zulu culture and Old Testament Christianity, it is built around the special healing powers of the founder and the direct line of communication he claimed to have to God.

"It is partly African culture and partly Christianity," says church elder Reverend Goga.

"Jesus was for Israel, we believe Isaiah Shembe is an African prophet and on a higher level than Jesus."

Walking the walk

Each year, spurred on by the throbbing sound of the vuvuzela, followers of the Shembe Church retrace the footsteps of their founder.

It is a gruelling three-day walk barefoot to the holy mountain of Mount Nhlangakazi north of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal.

The first sign that the pilgrims are on the move is the echoing of the vuvuzela through the lush green valleys of Zululand.

Minutes later they turn a corner and the dirt track fills with bearded men in flowing white gowns.

At the front four priests carry the Shembe's holy sacraments on their heads.

Enclosed in green caskets they are relics from the church's own "Last Supper".

Behind them are row after row of pilgrims with vuvuzelas waving in the air - first men then women.

It takes 45 minutes for all of them to dance and sing their way past.

A conservative estimate puts the size of this year's pilgrimage at 300,000 people.

A question of pride

"My feet are painful now but this is symbolising who I am," says one pilgrim.

"I am a real African man and this is a real African religion. I'm very proud of who I am," he says making his way up the long dusty road.

And it is that pride and sense of identity that has put the Shembe at odds with South African football.

The deep tone of the religious vuvuzela is very different from the way it is played by football fans.

That sound has been unflatteringly compared to a swarm of wasps, even an elephant passing wind.

"Football is stealing pleasure from Shembe," an elderly follower tells the BBC.

"When people are playing football and hearing the vuvuzela, they are getting the power of our Holy Spirit," he says.

That evening the vuvuzelas are put down and the sleepy village of Kwa-Shangase is for one night transformed into a buzzing town.

The smell of meat being cooked fills the night air as tents are put up to rest weary limbs.

Losing battle?

The Shembe say they "lost" the vuvuzela back in the 1990s when a supporter of South Africa's biggest football team, Kaizer Chiefs, visited the church.

Unable to take the long metal trumpet inside football grounds he re-modelled it in plastic.

A decade later it is set to be the most popular souvenir at the 2010 World Cup -which of course means there is money at stake.

"We are very serious about this. Before the World Cup we are going to instruct our lawyers to stop them playing the vuvuzela at the World Cup," says Shembe spokesman Enoch Mthembu.

"This thing [the vuvuzela] belongs to the church."

The Shembe's pleas are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Last year at the Confederations Cup there were complaints from both players and international TV broadcasters about this plastic trumpet.

But Fifa head Sepp Blatter has already given the vuvuzela his backing, saying the sound is an important part of South Africa's football culture.

It looks like the Shembe may have to settle for Africa's first World Cup throbbing to their "holy" sound.