South Africa

ANALYSIS

Song will tear us apart, again — just the way Malema and AfriForum want

A poster of EFF leader Julius Malema poster outside the Johannesburg High Court on 16 February 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi)

The application by AfriForum to stop the EFF’s leadership and Julius Malema from singing the song Dubul’ibhunu has led to much public debate about the real motive for the case. It has also led many to conclude it could result in Malema being strengthened politically. This is probably true.

But this may also be a case of how the extremes in our politics rely on each other, that what strengthens one side may strengthen the other side. Thus, while this case may strengthen Malema, it may also strengthen AfriForum, as they both attempt to help our nation drift apart.

All of this has happened before, in the original case more than 10 years ago, involving the very same people, the very same issues, but slightly different law.

In 2010 the ANC Youth League, Malema’s original political home, held an event at the Doornfontein campus of Wits University. I was there as a reporter. The leader of the league, Julius Malema, sang the song Dubul’ibhunu. As I reported at the time:

“When he sang the song, I didn’t notice. It wasn’t in English, and no one around me thought it was a huge event at the time. When it became a talking point later, one person actually remarked how some of the students looked a little uncomfortable when Malema sang it.

“The point I’m making here, is that as a whitie, with an Afrikaans sounding surname, I did not feel threatened, harassed, scared or indeed had any concern for my continued ability to exist. In other words, I didn’t get the feeling that the people around me were being incited to shoot me.”

But what really gave power to Malema and this song was not that he performed it, but the reaction to it. AfriForum (and the farmers’ union TLU — which still stands for the Transvaal Landbou Unie) took Malema to court. They argued that just the singing of the song was hate speech.

AfriForum’s action forced the ANC to support Malema — it was forced to argue it was “their” song, as part of the Struggle.

Again, as I wrote at the time,

“… now the ANC has to defend the song. Basically, Malema has become a rallying point for people who want to celebrate ANC traditions. The rights and wrongs of this don’t matter. The fact is that Mantashe and Zuma and company, the senior leadership, will now have no choice but to back Malema. He will look like a leader in waiting. It will give him huge momentum, he’ll look like a kingmaker. Which is exactly the opposite of what AfriForum wants.”

And so it proved.

The case was heard just before the 2011 local government elections. It was our history writ large, being dissected legally right in front of us. It was, perhaps, the most powerful court case since the rape trial of then future president Jacob Zuma in 2006.

The country’s only rolling news channel at the time, eNCA, took the case live; a large screen was erected outside the court building for people to watch proceedings (these days, there are three rolling news channels, you can watch TV on your phone and consult social media to satisfy your own confirmation bias). 

The power of the case came from framing it as about our history.

AfriForum’s advocate Martin Brassey put a question to the then ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe in court on the issue. As I reported that year: 

“Brassey suddenly asked Mantashe if he knew what a certain Zulu phrase meant, before reciting a Zulu statement. Mantashe answered, ‘Yes’. Then, as the crowd’s curiosity grew, Brassey asked, ‘And when was it said?’. Mantashe knows his history. The answer was, just before Dingaan killed Piet Retief. It was our history produced raw, right in front of us, and a really good illustration of how we are still, to an extent, trapped in it. Malema wasn’t part of the interchange, but he was the main driver for it.”

And again, this has been repeated last week, with Malema taking questions from AfriForum’s advocate Mark Oppenheimer. And Malema has used the moment to his full advantage, to talk about the black trauma of apartheid, to demand of AfriForum, “Why do you want to become victims, when we are the biggest victims here, when we have lost everything, when we as black people remain a traumatised nation?”

In many ways, there is no way Malema can lose. It is the perfect opportunity for him. It is to his political benefit to be seen as the one person in the country who will confront anti-black racism whenever he sees it.

This suggests that if AfriForum wanted to weaken Malema, it may well have failed. And that in fact this has backfired spectacularly.

It was absolutely foreseeable that this would happen. If a case on exactly the same issues strengthened Malema in 2011, why would it not strengthen him in 2022?

However, it should also be remembered that what may be happening in our politics is that those on the extremes may be strengthening each other.

It should be remembered that there may be an important distinction between whether Malema is really growing in political power, and whether he is seen as more threatening by certain people.

On the electoral evidence, Malema’s growth was slowing down.

But for AfriForum’s constituency, this trial may make him appear more threatening. This could then lead to more people joining AfriForum.

This could also be part of a much bigger dynamic. The results of both the 2019 and the 2021 elections have shown some indications of people moving away from the middle towards parties based on ethnic identities (parties like the FF+, the IFP and the Patriotic Alliance grew in voting share).

What may be happening in a trial like this is that the element of a person’s identity based on their race, or language group, may become more important.

To put it another way, to see Malema educate AfriForum on our real history may push people back into the identities that were forced on them during apartheid.

Or it could be said that this case was ideal to make people choose sides. You are either for AfriForum or for Malema with nothing in between, their arguments go.

This, of course, is a false binary, but it still can be felt in our politics. One can have many, many more nuanced views on a song like this, it is about our history, our present, our aspirations, our fears, our dreams, our politics, our land, our choices, our grandparents and our children and our grandchildren. And much more.

There is no need to be binary on something like this.

But, our court system can only produce winners and losers, it can only say that either the song is hate speech or it is not. And because any outcome will probably be appealed, this process of imposing a binary choice will continue.

One of the key issues in all of this is the “real” meaning of the words of the song. They mean both more and less than the words themselves.

Just as Malema means both more and less than the name “Jamnadas” when referring to Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, and when he said “we are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now”.

This is another part of the power of such an emotive issue, a song like this is about so much that it cannot be easily defined, and will mean different things to different people.

And this is why issues like this are so powerful, and will remain this powerful, for at least as long as our racialised inequality maintains its powerful grip on our society. And there will always be plenty of opportunists eager to benefit from tearing South Africa apart. DM

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All Comments 22

  • Frankly nothing will change …….. farmers will be murdered as before and Malema will scream racist hate from his various platforms. In the meantime the rest of us have a life

  • Surely the test of this song is whether you could reverse it… Could afriforum sing kill the EFF, etc.

    Think its pretty clear. In a country like ours you can’t go around singing kill someone

    • You can, in fact, go around singing exactly that and the law says it is perfectly acceptable – as long as you have a credible “cultural context” for it. This was explained a while ago by Pierre De Vos, I believe, with the recent changes to the definition of hate speech. To me it just sounded like a bunch of lawyer-speak to obfuscate common sense and justify yet another racial double standard in our country. The whole thing reeked of political cowardice.

  • Re the headline: I find these attempts to put Afriforum and the EFF in the same bandwagon exasperating. Look at the respective parties’ actual conduct over the past few years and you will note that Afriforum tries to serve, albeit generally a narrow segment of society whereas the EFF is a fascist cult hellbent on political power without any accountability, guilty of corruption/theft, exploiting racial tensions and actively supporting the likes of JGZ. Look at the lifestyles of their respective leaderships – their political narrative and their actions are world’s apart.The EFF and the AWB would be a legitimate comparison.

    • Amen. Idiotic lefty attempts to paint all white Afrikaners as motivated by racism is truly exasperating.

      The author is clearly a bigot.

      • So Stephen, is it ok to sing a song about killing somebody? No! The media must report it as it is.

        Comparing the EFF with Afriforum is just plain bigoted.

    • Agreed. I’m not a member of the EFF, nor Afriforum, but the latter cannot be regarded as the opposite extreme of the former. Stephen tries so desperately to convince us to sit on the comfortable fence and hide away – just so we don’t “strengthen” the little man Julias (hehe). I guess somebody has to stand up and protest his racism, hate and bigotry – and if it’s Afriforum, then so be it.

      • I agree with both William and Rolando. Malema is just another ugly racist, and that party of his, is reminiscent of the Nazis. It’s always such a disappointment when journalists cower when it comes to being honest about Malema and his thuggish followers.

    • I do not disagree with your comment but the EFF also serves ” a narrow segment of society”. The difference is that the media in SA seems mesmerised by Malema and he milks it for all its worth to his benefit but to the detriment of all those who care about the future of South Africa.

  • Save us from the polarizers. World politics at the moment seems to be all about polarization. The expanding universe may have a Big Bang at the end rather than the beginning.

  • Disagree. I think that this will backfire on the EFF.

    The EFF’s manifesto has been usurped by the ANC and they have no narrative that is meaningful and legal, so they resort to revolution type talk and while this may appeal to some, it doesn’t to most and certainly doesn’t with international lenders or any rational minded business person.

    The case probably becomes of interest to all nations. Imagine if I chant out ‘Allahu Akbar’ (Arabic: الله أكبر) at my next arrival in the US, or even while entering South Africa, or at the next EFF rally, and march outside the EFF’s offices brandishing a banner that reads “Kill the EFF” or “#F***OffEFF”! It will be hard for this to be deemed hate speech or declared illegal while the EFF can merrily chant hateful and violence inciting chants like, “Kill the Boer”, no matter how historic it has been used.

    It goes against the essence of our Constitution and, like the Old SADF and MK, have no place in the new South Africa. None.

    Also, if the EFF’s expert witness, Prof Elizabeth Gunner, is truly expert and unbiased, then I have never witnesses a more pathetic and un-credible witness in my life. She is probably the one that, in Peter Mokaba’s words, needs to be chased into the sea and killed. The 850000 Rwandan genocide victims must be turning in their graves. She is just to proud to notice it. Expert witness my ass.

  • Here is the thing that bothers me personally about the singing of “Dubul’ iBhunu”: iBhunu is the word that is used in the Zulu language to refer to Afrikaans-speaking people. Yes, it is derived from “Boer”, obviously, and it is true that could be used to refer to the state, or the police (the word “Boere” was similarly used in the 80s by many white and Indian English-speaking Natalians as a slang name for the police), but the word is first and foremost the Zulu name for an ethnic group of people in South Africa of which I am one, namely Afrikaans-speaking South Africans or in short, Afrikaners. Consulting a dictionary will bear me out on this.

    Suffice to say, when I hear “Dubul’ iBhunu”, then I hear “Shoot the Afrikaner”. It is as simple as that. Clearly it is then just as inappropriate to sing “Dubul’ iBhunu” as it would be to sing “Shoot the Zulu/Xhosa/Sotho/etc”.

    Every ethnic grouping in South Africa has had to make sacrifices to accommodate other groups as we have moved closer to one another across the divide that Apartheid had created. Some of these sacrifices were of cultural practices that we held dear, but they were abandoned because of the hurt that they could cause to others.

    To me this case is simple and clear: “Dubul’ iBhunu” is highly offensive and it should not be tolerated in South Africa.

    • Yes, this is so obvious that I can’t see how the court could possibly come to another conclusion, especially after this over-hyped-by-the-media racist declared that he refused to state that he would never swear that he would not order the killing of others.
      If the media, especially television stations, would simply give him only the 10% coverage he is entitled to they would be doing all of us a great service. Instead, his every word is covered in detail, inside and outside court.

  • I have far more respect and admiration for bank robbers than I have for EFF politicians, which is also to say I have zero respect and admiration for any criminals. But at least bank robbers are honest about their intentions and “upfront” with their demands! At least they don’t pretend to be the self-appointed and only saviours and protectors of the poverty-stricken masses when in truth their primary motive is just a self-serving, Trump-esque greed for money and power. It’s all so obvious and I view the EFF as enemies of the state, the South African people and our collective future. If the media simply ignored Malema he would suffocate without publicity, but mainstream media outlets have shareholders and associated profit motives. What can we do?

  • Spot on Stephen. I don’t feel we are being well supported by any of our politicians (or interest groups like AfriForum) and people’s anger is being channeled into counter productive divisions. This country has a lot of challenges, but also a lot going for it. I remain hopeful and committed to trying to be part of the change. It’s the only option.

  • Meh. Recalcitrant, obstreperous Juju-baby is simply desperated to remain relevant. If the authorities would simply get their skates on and nail this execrable, odious imp, we might all feel a little better about living in this potentially amazing country.

    • Yep, I’ve said for years of the EFF, the ANCYL, and the PAC before them, that the way to stop this lunacy from happening is to get the youth employed in sustainable work. That way they have a) something more productive to do with their time, and b) something to lose by being a radical plonker.

  • Your double standards and moral ambivalence are appalling, Stephen.

    Either it’s ok to publicly call, literally, for genocide of a (minority) demographic, or it’s not.

    Grow some balls and make your moral standpoint clear, Stephen, before you become Mr de Kleine.

    Your appeasement of a clearly fascist movement is entirely analogous to, and identically weak as Chamberlain’s effective support of the Nazis. Perhaps a history lesson is in order?

  • Stephen, please justify your statement that Afriforum wants to “help our nation drift apart”. What evidence do you have of this ?

  • This is a very complex issue- I watched Malema on the stand at the trial and he is definitely a compelling speaker. On the other hand, this song if sung by Afriforum and the roles were reversed, there would be a huge public outcry , and quite rightly so .Inflaming sectional public sentiment is dangerous , and overall nobody should be allowed to do this ,whichever side one champions

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