JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – A Johannesburg court has ruled that an old anti-apartheid struggle song with lyrics about shooting white farmers, “Dubula iBhunu” (“Shoot the Boer”), amounts to hate speech.
Julius Malema, leader of the ruling African National Congress’s Youth League, revived the song last year by singing it to crowds at political rallies, whipping up a storm of controversy in South Africa. Malema was taken to civil court by an Afrikaner lobby group, which argued the song incites violence in a country where white farmers feel they are being targeted in violent attacks.
In delivering his ruling Monday at the Equality Court in Johannesburg, Judge Collin Lamont said that “Shoot the Boer” amounted to hate speech, and the lyrics were “derogatory” and “dehumanizing.”
“The words of one person inciting others ... that's how a genocide can start,” he said.
Lamont said that if Malema, 30, sings it in future, he faces criminal charges and a potential prison spell
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“All genocide begins with simple exhortations which snowball,” Lamont wrote in his judgment, which bans the singing of the song. “Words are powerful weapons which if they are allowed to be used indiscriminately can lead to extreme and unacceptable action.”
The High Court ruling upheld a decision by a lower court, and has ordered Malema to pay costs.
After the ruling was announced, supporters of Malema began singing “Shoot the Boer” outside the courthouse. No one was arrested for contravening the court order.
"We are not scared," sang another group of supporters.
Malema, who is currently facing possible expulsion from the African National Congress for “bringing the party into disrepute” — charges unrelated to the song controversy — did not attend the court proceedings.
It was a marked change from his appearances at a court hearing in April, where he arrived flanked by bodyguards armed with assault rifles, and had Winnie Madikizela-Mandela — the ex-wife of Nelson Mandela — at his side, lending her support in the case.
The ANC Youth League, which had argued that the song’s lyrics are not meant to be taken literally, said it would study the court judgment and “consult with fraternal organizations.”
The ANC took a far stronger line, saying it is “appalled” by Judge Lamont’s decision that the song amounts to hate speech.
“We view this judgment as an attempt to rewrite the South African history, which is not desirable and unsustainable. This ruling flies against the need to accept our past and to preserve our heritage as an organization and as a people,” the ANC said in a statement.
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Free speech advocates have argued that while the song is offensive, it shouldn’t be banned, especially in a country with a history of repression.
But some groups have claimed that “Shoot the Boer” has incited the murders of white farmers (“boer” means “farmer” in Afrikaans). More than 3,000 white farmers have been murdered since the end of apartheid in 1994, and while robbery is usually the motive, the attacks are often brutally violent, raising questions about whether they are fueled by racial anger.
U2 frontman Bono, who toured South Africa earlier this year, waded into the controversy in an interview with a local newspaper, likening “Shoot the Boer” to Irish Republican Army rebel songs — but adding that context is key, and it would be “pretty dumb” to sing those songs in certain communities.
AfriForum, the Afrikaans lobby group that launched the court case against Malema, said it was “overjoyed” by the ruling.
“It sends a clear message to Malema that he isn’t above the law and that he can’t sow divisions wherever he goes,” said the group’s CEO, Kallie Kriel.
Kriel described the ruling as “a victory of mutual recognition and respect between communities about the culture of disrespect and polarization that is propagated by Malema."