South Africa: Song stirs bitter controversy


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — To many South Africans, it’s perhaps the most dangerous song in the country, fueling racial hatred and even murder. To others, it’s a song of liberation, a symbol of a revolutionary history.

“Shoot the Boer,” a song of the anti-apartheid struggle, has become a trigger for fierce conflict in a country where white farmers feel they are being targeted in violent attacks (Boer means farmer in Afrikaans).

Others argue that while the song may be inappropriate these days, it is hardly the cause of violence. Banning the song, they say, would stifle free expression and deny a history of repression.

U2 frontman Bono, now in South Africa on the band’s 360 Degree Tour, has waded into the emotional debate. In an interview, he likened “Shoot the Boer” to IRA rebel songs — sparking the ire of many South Africans, who accuse him of failing to understand the country.

The controversy began when Julius Malema, pot-stirring leader of the ruling African National Congress’ youth wing, sang “dubul’ibhunu,” Zulu for “shoot the Boer,” at a rally last year. “Shoot the Boer,” goes the song, “shoot, shoot, the cowards are scared.”

An Afrikaner lobby group, AfriForum, took Malema to court over the song, and the legal battle continues over whether the song amounts to hate speech by inciting violence against farmers.

Malema’s legal team has cited wide-ranging sources in defence of the song, including La Marseillaise, the French national anthem quoted in his court papers: “What! These foreign troops would make laws in our home! These mercenary phalanxes would bring down our proud warriors!”

Malema continues to sing the song at ANC rallies.

Bono, in an interview with South Africa’s Sunday Times, drew parallels between “Shoot the Boer” and Irish Republican Army rebel songs, which he described as “folk music,” but said that what is important is context, and “it’s about where and when you sing those songs.”

“I was a kid and I'd sing songs I remember my uncles singing,” Bono told the newspaper. “But would you want to sing that in a certain community? It’s pretty dumb.”

While he wasn’t supporting Malema or the singing of the song at public rallies, Bono’s comments still provoked a strong response among some South Africans, including callers to a local talk radio station and internet commentators, many of whom argued that the song is “hate speech” and that Bono “doesn’t know our history.”

A famous Afrikaans singer, Steve Hofmeyr, wrote on Twitter than he had thrown his two $340 tickets for U2’s Johannesburg concert into a river in disgust.

“The difference Bono? Your songs are in a safe context while ours are not,” Hofmeyr wrote on Twitter. “You live in peace in Dublin while our boer are exterminated like flies. The Irish songs are cold nostalgia – ours are warm blood,” he wrote.

“Bono is right about freedom songs! But do hate-speech songs qualify? This is the only question,” Hofmeyr wrote in another Twitter post.

Fueling the debate has been the often brutally violent killings of white farmers. More than 3,000 white farmers have been murdered since 1994, although a committee of inquiry in 2003 could find evidence that only 2 percent of farm attacks were racially or politically motivated. Robbery was usually the main motive, but the attacks were often unnecessarily violent, raising questions about whether they were fueled by racial anger.

Some groups have claimed that “Shoot the Boer” has incited the murders of whites, including the killing of white supremacist Eugene Terreblanche last year, allegedly bludgeoned to death by two black farm workers in a dispute over wages.

After the murder of Terreblanche, the ANC told its members to stop singing “Shoot the Boer.” ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said that while Terreblanche’s murder had not been politically motivated, the song contributed to racial hatred.

AfriForum, the Afrikaner lobby group, has argued that the song’s meaning has racial overtones. “The word ‘boer’, in this context, is a derogatory word referring to farmers, whites and to Afrikaners in particular,” an AfriForum affidavit said.

However, the same group said on Sunday that it supported Bono’s comments, emphasizing that while there is room for struggle songs, it is “stupid” to sing them in public.

Pieter Mulder, leader of the Freedom Front Plus party and deputy minister of agriculture, has publicly opposed the song. “Presently, where farmers are murdered every week and violence and murder have become part of society, phrases such as ‘shoot the Boer’ are totally unacceptable,” he said. “In the light of the hate speech sections in the Constitution, these types of phrases should be prohibited by the courts.”