The approach of Heritage Day this weekend may seem to be an unlikely moment to focus on the recent furore over Julius Malema’s singing of “Kill the Boer, Kill the farmer”. But the chant, which can be so divisive and is still held strongly in the collective memory of some, is worth examining in the context of the heritage of protest songs in South Africa.
To understand protest songs, we must look at their history.
Slogans and songs arose in practically all sectors of our society during the Struggle years. This included the church. A number of Struggle songs are still sung in South Africa today, especially during service delivery protest marches, at funerals of certain political leaders, and at celebrations of certain events from the past.
During Govan Mbeki’s funeral in 2001, writes researcher Vuyisile Msila, mourners sang: “Go well uMkhonto (Spear of the Nation)/uMkhonto we Sizwe/We the soldiers of uMkhonto/Are determined to kill the Boers”. On this occasion, he said, “a prominent ANC official stood up and explained that this song’s last two lines should be replaced by: We, the soldiers of Mkhonto, are determined to work or cooperate with the Boers.”
The then president of the National Union of Mineworkers’, Cedric Gcina, was reported to have said the following about the song nine years later, in 2010: “The singing of the song in memory of fallen members was not a desire to kill farmers. Struggle songs are part of our history and heritage. Revolutionary songs continue to play an important role … Therefore courts cannot be used to erase our memories and demobilise our revolutionary activism by banning Struggle songs.”
However, the expression of such sentiments in song remains divisive in post-apartheid South Africa. During an interview on Talk Radio 702 in 2010, Mosiuoa Lekota indicated that such songs “should not be sung and taught to young people, because they are detrimental to unity and hostile to efforts at reconciliation”.
Lekota said that in South Africa, we should instead sing songs about “peace and a better life”. This was how the country would be taken forward.
Yet he noted that Struggle songs should be archived for future generations’ understanding of our country’s history.
So, what should we think about protest songs?
Msila argues that Struggle or freedom songs continue to hold significance for their place in history and their role as heritage.
He argues that they need to be seen as reflecting culture and identity. They contribute to a particular historical narrative.
According to Msila, “the freedom song has become the living, oral ‘historian’ that narrates the past”.
Singing and hearing these songs reminds people of a brutal time in South Africa, but it should also still inspire people to embrace and cherish democracy.
We cannot ignore this if we want to think deeply about reconciliation and the victory over apartheid.
The words of protest songs in South Africa were the psychic threads that wove the freedom movements into a “tapestry of purpose, solidarity, hope, and courage” – a description of the role of such songs by American civil rights activist Bruce Hartford.
Hartford noted that “freedom movements have always been singing movements.”
Take, for example, the highly respected South African activist and musician Vuyisile Mini who walked to the gallows in 1964 singing. He and so many others told their stories with songs, which have long been an inspiration to many.
There is an argument that the failure to recognise the role of Struggle songs diminishes the memories of people who fought for freedom.
Author Robin Scher says the Struggle against apartheid is retold by, among other things, commemorating important historical events, through biographies of individuals, but also through protest songs which have served as an alternative documentation of the struggle for rights since the 1920s.
Protest music outlines and defines important facets of this history.
Probably the most important meaning of protest songs, according to sociologist Martin Murray, is that they provide a vehicle for collective memory as well as reconciliation.
Events that are worth remembering are connected to the “eternal present” through music. This provides a paradoxical connection: a constant return to the future.
The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said: “Without these freedom songs, our struggle would have been a great deal longer, a great deal bloodier, and perhaps not even successful.”
In recent years, according to Msila, the “Boer” in these songs has also come to represent the current oppressors, who, for example, stand in the way of service delivery, land reform and economic freedom. These songs (still) give rise to catharsis and create community or togetherness.
Thus today – almost 30 years after democracy – people who still experience injustice use these “weaponised” protest songs to express their anger. Protest songs will probably always be sung – within our current context and into the future.
In the context of the meaning that protest songs have played in our history, it is problematic to simply equate certain songs with hate speech.
It is self-evident that hate speech cannot be tolerated in a democratic South Africa, but we must deal with perceptions of hate speech very carefully and with great care regarding context.
There is also a difference between freedom songs that brought social justice, and songs that want to reinforce the history of the oppressor.
Msila says songs that might celebrate, for example, apartheid and Nazism, can never be equated with freedom songs.
What then do we do with “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer”, the “offending” song that pops up from time to time?
Article 15 of the Equality Act of 2000, by which we must judge this song, expressly states that hate speech can never be fair.
However, there are exceptions according to this Act: Words that normally constitute hate speech may be uttered, but only if they occur within the context of “bona fide engagement in artistic creativity, academic and scientific inquiry, fair and accurate reporting in the public interest or publication of any information, advertisement or notice in accordance with section 16 of the Constitution”.
In other words, when “Kill the Boer” is perhaps used in the context of a protest march against crime, especially farm crimes and murders, or at political meetings, the Equality Court will have to clarify whether any of these defences can possibly apply.
The point is that a song like “Kill the Boer” is unlikely to be completely banned by a court, since the Equality Act, within certain contexts, creates certain defences against a charge of hate speech. This must include the use of the words “Kill the Boer”.
This is the price of democracy – or the nature of the kind of democracy we are trying to establish in South Africa.
Ideally, we are striving for a democracy built on accountability – one that moves away from a culture of expecting obedience “because I say so” (a blatant exercise of power) to a culture of accountability and giving reasons (“owning up”) for decisions. Convincing through rational debate instead of imposing.
I increasingly wonder if the “solution” to this issue can ever really lie with the courts – although it must be said that on both sides of this case, there are good advocates with persuasive arguments.
Does the solution not lie in robust dialogue among citizens about what is applicable, acceptable and constructive in the current South African context and what is not, as former president Thabo Mbeki suggested when he argued that “Kill the Boer” should not be sung in post-apartheid South Africa any more?
Language creates reality, as the German philosopher Martin Heidegger points out. This is especially true for those who take words literally.
“Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home,” said Heidegger.
Language, music, songs, and poetry inter alia all contribute to establishing this house of being in which we all live.
What kind of guardians of this house do we want in our South Africa?
We need to grapple with the challenge of a democratic process in which all citizens of this country are heard.
Until we have found common ground, the courts should give guidance as they see fit. DM