When our elephant-headed leaders fight, the grassroots suffer. Their games only seem to benefit themselves, although this democracy’s action has made for some spectacular viewing. Ask any political journalist.
ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s singing of That Song (the “morals of society”, according to Judge Colin Lamont, dictate that we should refrain from “shoot-ing the Boer”) was first reported following a pre-SRC elections meeting in March 2010 at the University of Johannesburg.
It was a bit of a slow day for the leader, with students arriving for the meeting at the open campus space in a trickle rather than a flood. There were maybe a few hundred students, predominantly black, with many in the crowd being curious onlookers rather than full-on Youth League fans. At the meeting, Malema sang the national anthem, including the bits from Die Stem, frequently left out at ANC-only gatherings. Then he sang the struggle song Ayasab’ amagwala (“the cowards are scared”), which included the now-interdicted words, Dubul’ ibhunu (“shoot the Boer”). Some of the students seemed surprised. Some even giggled.
That’s what prompted me to beg a translation from a colleague who understood isiZulu.
Obviously some of these students were either too young to have used the song in the bad old days, and they presumably sensed the “morals of society” dictating that it wasn’t a great song to sing at an open meeting.
Malema seemed to recognise this when he told journalists on Wednesday: “The best judgement would have been that these songs do not have a place in the new South Africa, but we cannot ban them. South Africans must find a way of disciplining themselves in a fair, democratic society. Then you can decide whether you want to be relevant in the new condition, or if you want to be irrelevant in the new condition.”
He is right, and he seems to have abided by what’s relevant (after an interim interdict, it should be added) so far by – significantly – not singing the song at meetings. At least I haven’t heard him sing it, even if rank and file League members did. Afriforum and its co-litigant, the Transvaal Agricultural Union, should have grasped his apparent willingness to compromise by reciprocating, maybe by backing off from their own white whining, which at times bordered on irrational hysteria. But once a court date was set, even those within the ANC who wanted dialogue were apparently overruled by those who were hell-bent on proving their point in court.
The judicial – and most judicious – solution to a problem like this shouldn’t have been to clamp down, but to open up the minds as well as space for debate. But instead, Judge Lamont erred on the side of censorship, sugar-coating it with ubuntu (at least his are more or less in line with the new Chief Justice’s views on freedom of speech).
This is hardly conducive to the talk-to-each-other outcome Afriforum’s Willie Spies proclaims to have wanted, although he welcomed this week’s ruling anyway. (The favourable judgement is likely to result in favourable donors.)
But why is dialogue in South Africa seemingly so last century now? Monologues are rife: Judge Lamont’s ruling seems to exist in a sterile vacuum and didn’t speak to any of the real problems; Malema loves to speak but hates dissent (and mostly sends spokesman Floyd Shivambu to public debates on his behalf); while Afriforum’s preoccupation with minority rights at the expense of everything else amounts to some form of inaudible ventriloquism.
Are we so presumptuous as to think we have arrived in an ideal society in which we can merely Tipp-Ex out the potholes by delivering right-wrong judgements and conducting win-lose elections?
The ANC often flexes its almost two-thirds majority in Parliament, while those who feel wronged by the ANC majority take shelter in front of the Bench. And while the letter of democracy allows all this adversity, its spirit doesn’t desire it. We managed dialogue 20 years ago, but perhaps we’re stuck in a bad national romance where the passage of time, lack of communication and too much politics have eroded trust between citizens rather than cemented it.
In the early 1990s black people had nothing to lose and white people had no choice, so we were forced to talk (the war option was thankfully overruled). But now we all have much to lose and democracy has given us many choices. Our nation’s become like a couple that has accumulated material wealth and comfort over the years, but in the process grown apart for lack of communication.
Much of it’s about the power thing. Afriforum’s Spies contends that the judgement has “levelled the playing fields”, implying that the white “minority” of a certain conviction has to leverage itself political power through the courts, while Malema claims black people still have no power because white people hold the economic reins.
Then there is the fight about who has sacrificed the most. Many white people seem to think that ceding political power to the majority was sacrifice enough, while many black people feel they have sacrificed a lot and are now forced to give even more. For instance, the Voortrekker Monument is still intact and in use and the old South African flag may fly, even though these symbols still cause offense. Yet now a liberation struggle song is effectively banned by a white judge.
Much can be said about our failure in the past 17 years to create a more equitable society, but if we want to go anywhere better in the next few years, we’ll have to lay down our politics and talk. The grassroots are resilient, but being used as a wrestling pad by elephants isn’t much fun for long. DM
Jill of all trades but really, mistress of none, Carien has of late been a political tourist chasing elections and summits in various parts of the world, especially in Africa. After spending her student days at political rallies in South Africa right through the country's first democratic elections in 1994, and after an extended working holiday in London, Carien started working for newspapers full-time in 2003. She's pretty much had her share of reporting on South African politics, attending gatherings and attracting trolls, but still finds herself attracted to it like a moth to a veld fire. Her ultimate ambition in life is to become a travelling chocolate writer of international fame.
"The world doesn't make sense so why should I paint pictures that do?" ~ Pablo Picasso