When Songs Become Hate Speech

Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images
Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images

The growing debate in the United States about the increasingly virulent hate speech by so-called Tea Party activists and their talk radio and Republican Party boosters has resonance these days in South Africa.


The ruling African National Congress is engaged in an increasingly bitter court battle over its claimed right to continue singing publicly so-called struggle songs, such as "Kill the Boer." The song has become a favorite of controversial ANC Youth League President Julius Malema when addressing crowds of supporters.

Leaders of the Afrikaner community, who controlled the white minority government prior to democratic elections in 1994, have complained that the songs are directly linked to the murders in recent years of more than 1,500 white farmers

A group of Afrikaner youth, known as AfriForum Youth, last week won a court verdict banning Malema from continuing to sing the song, which the judge called "an incitement to murder." Afrikaner leaders complain that repeated singing of the songs and policies of the ANC government have generated real fear in the white communities.

The issue came to a fiery head over Easter weekend following the murder of Eugene Terre'Blanche, the leader of a right-wing Afrikaner organization called Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB), founded in the early 1990s as die-hard opponents of the apartheid government's reconciliation to the black majority. He threatened civil war to block the incoming black government and spent three years in prison for assaulting a black gas station worker and for the attempted murder of a black security guard in 1996.

Terre'Blanche was allegedly bludgeoned and hacked to death with a machete and crowbar by two young blacks who worked on his farm in a dispute over $90 in wages.

Although President Jacob Zuma's African National Congress has vowed to appeal the court ruling against the public use of the song, there was immediate recognition of the potential for racial violence following the murder, so the president called for calm, and asked leaders from all communities to be careful in their public statements.


Officials in the ruling party reportedly realized that South Africa's rainbow nation attraction as a tourist and investor destination could be threatened by a spasm of racial violence following Terre'Blanche's murder. Such troubles could also seriously jeopardize the hosting in June of the World Cup championships.

Terre'Blanche's AWB supporters at first vowed revenge and warned people from coming to South Africa in just over two months to attend the FIFA World Cup championships—warning that visitors cannot be safe. While the AWB later withdrew the threat of vengeance, they continued to warn countries against sending teams and tourists to what they called the crime capital of the world.


White opposition parties joined in the condemnation of the ANC. But criticism also came from black politicians, including a former national chairman of the ANC. Mosiuoa Lekota, who now heads the breakaway opposition COPE party, bitterly attacked the ANC for its stance on struggle songs—comparing it to the run up to the genocides in Rwanda and Hitler's Germany.

"If the ruling party continues on this path, then any disaster will be on their heads," he said. "In Rwanda, in only three months time," he continued, "a million people were slaughtered for nothing else than that they were a particular tribe. Hitler taught the youth of Germany the same thing."


Lekota condemned the ANC and Jacob Zuma for not reining in Julius Malema. Indeed, at the moment Terre'Blanche was being murdered, Malema was receiving a hero's welcome from President Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, where he repeatedly sang the song and threatened to bring Mugabe's land and mine-seizure policies to South Africa.

"I may be an African, but I feel uneasy when I hear these songs, because I feel somewhere somebody is encouraging young people to do these things …,"Lekota said. "The government should take actions against anybody who says you must kill, even if it is in a song."


Kenneth Walker is an independent journalist based in South Africa and the CEO of Lion House Strategic Communications.

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