Shoot the Boer: hate music?

In 2011, a South African court banned the anti-apartheid song “Shoot the Boer” after ruling it hate speech, writes Nimi Hoffmann.

The case

In 2011, the new ANC Youth League president Julius Malema sang the struggle-era song dubula amabhunu (Shoot the Boer) four times in South Africa and once in Zimbabwe at public events. The refrain dubula amabhunu was first uttered by Peter Mokoba at a rally in Cape Town in 1993 in memory of the South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani. Hani had recently been murdered by right-wing whites in order to derail the negotiations to end apartheid.

In protest, the Afrikaner lobby group Afriforum took a petition to the ANC’s head offices in Johannesburg. Along with the petition, they handed over a list of 1,600 recent victims of farm attacks in South Africa. The Youth League’s response was to throw the list into the gutter and trample on it. Afriforum subsequently took Julius Malema to court for hate speech, arguing that the word amabhunu refers to Afrikaners or farmers and that the lyrics incite violence towards this group.

The ANC defended Malema’s singing of the lyrics, explaining that they formed part of the repertoire of songs used to galvanise people during apartheid, and that the song was a part of struggle heritage. Malema’s legal counsel in turn objected to the English translation of the lyrics, arguing that the lyrics were taken out of context and that the word amabhunu does not refer to Afrikaners, but to the system of apartheid.

However, Judge Colin Lamont ruled in South Africa’s high court that the singing of the song contravened the hate speech provision in the Equality Act, and violated the ethical principle of ubuntu, which refers to individuals’ obligation to care for others. The song was subsequently banned from all public and private meetings.

Author opinion

In my view, Lamont’s ruling constitutes a drastic infringement on the right to freedom of expression. As constitutional expert Pierre de Vos has argued, Lamont did not only find that the singing of the song by Julius Malema in specific contexts constitutes hate speech. Rather, he outright banned the song and the words in all contexts at all times. This means that should ANC members gather at a party and reminisce about old times, for instance, they would be in contempt of court.

Second, Lamont accepted that dubula amabhunu means different things to different people, but rather than attempting to reconcile these disparate meanings, he ruled that the affected group’s interpretation trumps all others. On this reasoning, as de Vos points out, if one were to call devout Christians “bigots” because of their views on homosexuality, Christians could claim this constitutes an intention to harm them and one might be found guilty of hate speech.

Furthermore, by acknowledging that the singers of dubula amabhunu intended the phrase to refer to the dismantling of apartheid, rather than the killing of Afrikaners, Lamont conceded that the song is not an incitement to kill anyone, but rather an incitement to “kill” systemic injustice. As such, there are no grounds for it to be described as hate speech.

Finally, the simplistic appeal to ubuntu to dampen public discussion is a worrying trend in South African jurisprudence. The principle that umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, or “a person is a person through her relations of care and love for others” does not imply that freedom of speech must be curtailed in the interests of social harmony. This position requires further argument. Indeed, one could instead argue that the analysis of whether a phrase constitutes hate speech must be understood in the context of four centuries of systematic exploitation by settlers and the dehumanising effect of this on both white and black individuals.  On this view, dubula amabhunu may reflect the long-term effects of hatred and attempts to dismantle it, rather than hate speech itself.

- Nimi Hoffmann

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Comments (0)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

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    I do not agree with the author that the judgment means “should ANC members gather at a party and reminisce about old times […], they would be in contempt of court”. We have to bear in mind that the song is being used by Julius Malema at political rallies to mobilise listeners, so the setting matters for understanding the judgment.

    Also, the words of what are being said are important to the case. The author draws an equivalence with calling Christians “bigots” but that is not the same as saying “shoot the Christians” as the latter would be a direct call to violence which has the potential to be misunderstood at a political rally, even if the speaker only intended listeners to shoot Christians in a philosophical manner…

    I am sure that if white politicians were singing “shoot the Bantus” at political rallies, the author would not be so dismissing of an ubuntu jurisprudence that calls for social solidarity.

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