In S. Africa, song controversy reveals depth of racial rift today

An Afrikaans group has filed a racial hatred lawsuit against prominent politician Julius Malema because of his penchant for singing 'Shoot the Boer,' a provocative song of the South African freedom movement.

Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Supporters of African National Congress (ANC) Youth League president Julius Malema chant slogans outside a Johannesburg court during Malema's appearance for a hate speech trial, on April 12. Malema is charged for singing 'Shoot the Boer,' a provocative song of the South African freedom movement.

Can a song cause a killing? An Afrikaans rights group thinks so, and it is suing a prominent South African politician for singing it during political rallies.

A trial began this week into AfriForum's racial hatred lawsuit against Julius Malema, the outspoken leader of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL), because of his penchant for singing “Shoot the Boer,” a provocative song of the South African freedom movement. "Boer" means "farmer" in the Afrikaans language.

AfriForum draws a direct connection between the song and the growing number of murders of white farmers in rural areas across South Africa.

The song “creates a problem with the respect between the majority and minority,” Dannie Goosen, chairman of the Afrikaner group Federasie Vir Afrikaanse Kutuurvereeniging, told the Equality Court in Johannesburg on Thursday. She added that Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch settlers, see the song “as a threat to their symbolic connection to South Africa.”

The song is revealing the incredible gap that still exists largely along racial lines in this this society.

On one side is South Africa’s white and once dominant Afrikaner minority, which views the song as an incitement to racial violence. On the other side is much of the black majority (and the ruling African National Congress party), which argues that such freedom-struggle songs are a necessary part of South Africa’s history, and should not be banned.

“These songs are part of our national heritage," Patrick Craven, spokesman for the Congress of South African Trades Unions (COSATU) – a close ally of the ANC – told reporters today. "They do not constitute a call to take up arms against whites as a race group or as individuals, but against the system of oppression and apartheid.”

"Mineworkers have always sung these songs and continue to sing these songs today and there have never been any killings of people,” Lesiba Seshoka, spokesman for National Union of Mineworkers, also told reporters. “When [black struggle leader] Chris Hani was assassinated [in 1993], the masses of our members sang the song but there has never been any retaliation towards the race of those who killed him."

Mr. Seshoka dismissed the notion that a song could incite violence.

"After 16 years of democracy and reconciliation," he said, "South Africa is a strong united nation with mature citizens and as such there can be no violence that is perpetuated by a young man singing a song."

But like the Confederate war song “Dixie” or the Nazi German anthems during World War II, songs such as “Shoot the Boer” or “Umshini wami” (“bring me my machine gun”) – popularized by President Jacob Zuma – are hard to view in isolation from the present-day reality of life in South Africa, a life that all too often involves high murder rates and continued ill-feeling between South Africa’s white and black populations.

Analysts warn against allowing such disputes to overshadow South Africa's progress toward equality and give too much attention to the viewpoints of a radical few citizens who haven’t changed, and perhaps won’t ever change, their racial views.

Outside the courthouse today, Mr. Malema said he was certain to win the court case. But he now tends to sing a slightly altered version of the song, “Kiss the Boer.”

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