Song, killing raise racial tensions in South Africa

Shoot, shoot.
Shoot the Boer.
Shoot, shoot.
Shoot the Boer.
Shoot, shoot.
-- From an apartheid-era song revived recently by African National Congress youth leader Julius Malema


It was a terrible week for race relations in South Africa.

Exhibit A: A photo of a bloody tooth of slain white supremacist Eugene TerreBlanche knocked out during his killing, splashed across front pages of newspapers.

Exhibit B: The expensive court battle on whether the song calling for the killing of Boers, referring to white farmers, is hate speech or a noble part of the history of liberation from a racist regime.

Exhibit C: An outburst by Malema, who threw a white BBC journalist out of a news conference after calling him a “bloody agent” and “bastard” with a “white tendency.”

One African weekly newspaper summed it up Friday with the headline “Idiotocracy.”

Many South Africans wondered how race relations could have reached such a low ebb at what should have been a moment of national optimism, two months before the country flings its doors open to the world, hosting soccer’s World Cup.

The tournament is widely viewed as a coming-of-age party for the country, its chance to portray itself as an advanced African democracy with a modern economy, efficient infrastructure and a racially tolerant “Rainbow Nation” 16 years after the end of apartheid.

Instead, the rise in racial tensions threatens to derail the unifying feel-good national sentiment that was an expected benefit of the event.

“I think Julius Malema is going for very short-term political leverage, playing on uncertainties and anxieties and resentments,” said analyst William Gumede of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Graduate School of Public and Development Management. “In the long term, that’s going to be very dangerous for South Africa.

“Once you let the genie out of the bottle, it’s very difficult to get it back in.”

The increased race friction is a defining moment in the tenure of President Jacob Zuma, a leader with such a low-key consensual style that he has been unable to halt the factional battles in the ANC, or curb Malema’s divisive rhetoric.

Critics say the leadership vacuum leaves the country drifting, with the ANC government unable to deliver its promises to improve healthcare, education and other services. In the meantime, Malema capitalizes on the vast, disillusioned black underclass by turning its anger and despair against whites and “imperialists.”

“What the ANC needs most in these difficult times is much more visionary, competent and honest leaders. That kind of leadership is no longer there. In that vacuum, leaders like Malema enter the fray,” Gumede said.

On Saturday, Zuma sharply criticized Malema, saying his comments were alien to ANC culture.

“We reiterate that leaders should think before they speak, as their utterances have wider implications for the country,” Zuma told journalists in the eastern city of Durban.

The history of “Shoot the Boer” is contested. The ANC, which is appealing a High Court ban on the song, says it was an important struggle song. But some say the slogan “Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer” originated in the Pan-Africanist Congress as part of its “One Settler, One Bullet” campaign in the early 1990s.

Even the ANC’s stance on the song has varied. When the country’s Human Rights Commission ruled in 2003 that the “Shoot the Boer” slogan was hate speech, the party’s secretary-general welcomed the judgment, saying, “The utterance has never been, cannot and never will be a slogan of the ANC, nor be used by the ANC at all.”

But current ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe said recently that the song shouldn’t be erased from history just because some people were sensitive.

“Anyone who relegates this song to hate speech is part of those who are trying to erase our history,” he said.

Others contend that the song is offensive because of the frequent killings of white farmers by blacks, often with extreme violence, such as the fatal attack on TerreBlanche the evening before Easter.

TerreBlanche, leader of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, or AWB, was a politically irrelevant extremist with a minuscule following when he was bludgeoned in his bed by two of his black farmworkers. They said their motive was unpaid wages, according to police.

Yet police also say the killers stripped and humiliated the 69-year-old in a way that suggested extreme racial hatred.

TerreBlanche’s loyalists, who allege that Malema’s renditions of “Shoot the Boer” in recent months were the real cause of the killing, vowed to take their time to carefully plan revenge.

“We are going to avenge the death of Eugene TerreBlanche, but we are going to our people to ask them what they think and then we will decide a proper and useful strategy and then we will take our revenge,” a spokesman for the group, Andre Visagie, said in a phone interview.

It is not just the AWB that is concerned about the violence against farmers.

Chris Van Zyl of the Transvaal Agricultural Union said in a phone interview that in one recent case, a man’s soles were stripped from his feet while alive. An elderly woman’s breasts were sliced off; another was gang-raped. Another was raped with a broken bottle.

The police and government have no statistics on farm killings. Van Zyl’s group has recorded 1,266 slayings and 2,070 attacks since 2001. Other groups say more than 3,000 farmers have been killed in the last 16 years.

Van Zyl said that 78 farmers were killed in 2008, 55 last year and 19 this year, and that nonfatal attacks had increased dramatically. Most victims were elderly people on isolated farms.

He said the extreme violence suggested racial hatred and that the “Shoot the Boer” song was fueling that sentiment.

“Emotions are being charged against white and Boers, who are white farmers. I think there’s been a deliberate effort to portray farmers as racist and violent people by political groups and COSATU,” he said, referring to the congress of trade unions affiliated with the ANC.

Analyst Gumede said one reason for the ANC’s shift on the song was Zuma’s political vulnerability. The president had promised favors to people such as Malema who helped him get elected.

Malema is powerful in the party because he mobilized apathetic youths to support the ANC in last year’s national election, analysts say.

Gumede said politicians such as Malema were exploiting an explosive situation for their own gain, and to shift attention away from the government’s failure to deliver on services, a major source of social tension.

“Shoot the Boer” “was a song that was part and parcel of the liberation struggle,” Gumede said. “It’s out of context now and it’s now being abused.”