[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Throughout the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, vocal music provided a lively soundtrack, from four-part harmonies urging endurance, to thundering calls for action. Among the latter was a chant with the refrain, “The cowards are scared. Shoot, shoot, shoot the Boer. These dogs are raping.” Boer is slang for white South Africans. It’s derived from the Dutch word for farmer. The song might have remained a relic of history but for Julius Malema, leader of the youth wing of the ruling African National Congress Party. At a rally in March, he led the crowd in a rendition of the chant.
JULIUS MALEMA: Shoot to kill.
[CROWD RESPONSE] Kill a man.
[CROWD RESPONSE] Shoot to kill.
[CROWD RESPONSE] The master.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Malema was condemned by opposition parties and human rights groups, and two separate South African courts ruled the song unconstitutional hate speech and banned it. But the ANC defended the chant as part of its history and heritage and vowed to appeal. Shoot the Boer is certainly not unique among South African protest songs. One YouTube clip shows Nelson Mandela at a memorial service for fallen ANC activists in 1992 raising his fist while his supporters sing a song. It goes, “We have pledged ourselves to kill them, the whites.”
[PEOPLE SINGING] The current South African President Jacob Zuma used another militant anthem as his campaign song a year ago. Its words, “Umshini wam,” translate to, “Bring me my machine gun.”
[PEOPLE SINGING] But President Zuma and much of the ANC’s top leadership have done an about face, telling their rank and file to stop singing Shoot the Boer and sending Malema before an internal disciplinary committee whose hearings began this week. Later this month, Malema will begin court proceedings aimed at tagging his chanting, once and for all, as hate speech. Last week meanwhile, Time Magazine named him in its list of Least Influential People of 2010, under the heading of “Morons.” But despite the political dustup, Jane Duncan who teaches media studies at Rhodes University in South Africa, says the singing of Malema and his supporters has less to do with racial hatred and more to do with bubbling socioeconomic tensions. And, according to one study last year, South Africa has supplanted Brazil as having the world’s highest income disparity. What’s more, she says, the song doesn't even fulfill the South African Constitution’s three criteria for hate speech.
JANE DUNCAN: First of all, you need to prove that the speech constitutes advocacy of hatred. It needs to be on the basis of one of four recognizable grounds – race, gender, ethnicity or religion. And thirdly, it must constitute incitement to cause harm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It strikes me that since Boers represent white farmers, there’s the racial component. And the call to kill them would be an incitement to cause harm. So why wouldn't those things fall under the legal definition of hate speech?
JANE DUNCAN: I don't think that anyone in their right minds would have construed the singing of the song as an incitement to kill particular Boers. Rather, I think it was always understood that the song was not necessarily literally meant, that it was a metaphorical call to arms against the system of apartheid.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: For certain white South Africans there are legitimate fears, aren't there? There have been some 3,000-odd murders of farmers since the end of apartheid in 1994. The majority of those, I believe, are white farmers.
JANE DUNCAN: There has been a link that has been true between the farm murders and the chanting of the song. I think, while it could be argued that the song feeds into an environment of hostility against farmers, there are many other factors that feed into that climate, as well, the fact that farmers often exploit farm workers, that farms are often highly exposed, which makes it easier for farm attacks to take place are also factors. Because we're unable to draw causal links between these farm attacks and the chanting of the song, we need to be very careful about advocating for censorship of the song.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay so if it isn't technically hate speech, isn't it still hateful speech?
JANE DUNCAN: In 2004, an Equality Act was drafted that actually broadened the definition of hate speech to include not just harmful speech but hurtful speech, as well. Now, it’s obviously very difficult to identify what constitutes hurtful speech, which means that you can end up catching in the net of hate speech all kinds of speech that people may feel to be objectionable but that doesn't necessarily result in people wanting to harm other people. And that’s quite dangerous for our democracy, because it can create an environment where people are reluctant to engage on very sensitive issues.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In May of 2008, starting in poor township neighborhoods in Johannesburg, there was a wave of attacks aimed at Zimbabwean and other African immigrants that left over 60 people dead and thousands displaced in refugee camps. At the time, some suggested that the immigrants were a scapegoat for general frustration with the government. Do you think that it’s possible that’s why Malema and his violent protest songs have gained traction, that it’s an indirect outlet for people’s frustration?
JANE DUNCAN: Yes, I certainly think that a lot of black people feel disappointed about the manner and pace of transformation of South African society. I have questions about whether Julius Malema is the best person to give a voice to these kinds of frustrations. I think that he has been chanting the song in order to distract attention away from media investigations of his own personal affairs. But in the process of stopping him from chanting the song, we risk closing down the space for people who are more genuine representatives from saying what they need to say. If we drive these kinds of messages underground, then we run the risk of not becoming aware of the buildup of tensions in our society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jane Duncan, thank you very much.
JANE DUNCAN: All right, it’s a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jane Duncan is a professor of Media and Information Society at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.