JOHANNESBURG – The leader of the governing African National Congress' youth wing was in court Monday, at the start of a closely watched trial pitting his right to sing a song from the apartheid era against concern it heightens racial tension in South Africa.
AfriForum, which portrays itself as an advocate for white South Africans of Dutch descent, said Julius Malema's repeated singing of "Shoot the boer" portrays all whites as enemies who should be shunned or even killed. Boer, "farmer" in the language of the Dutch descendants known as Afrikaners, is sometimes used as an insult for whites.
Some of the testimony during Monday's court hearing was broadcast live across South Africa, a measure of the extent to which issues of race and racism still touch nerves 17 years after apartheid ended.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a leader of the ANC's radical wing, was in court to support Malema, who was accompanied to the court house by body guards armed with rifles and supporters who cheered, whistled and sang out, "My president!"
Sifiso Ntuli, a musician who has researched the songs that rang out at anti-apartheid protests over the decades, said "Shoot the boer" was never intended to incite violence, and should be heard metaphorically. Ntuli said he's sung it with white friends who share his politics.
"It means, 'Get rid of oppression,'" Ntuli said. "'Boer' means oppression, in the South African context."
The ANC argues banning the song amounts to denying part of South Africa's history.
But in Afriforum's civil suit, in which it was joined by a white farmers' organization, the group called on the court to declare Malema's singing of the song to be hate speech, which is prohibited under South African law. A hate speech designation could lead to criminal charges.
Afriforum said Afrikaners and Afrikaner farmers felt humiliated and degraded when they heard "Shoot the boer," and believed Malema sang it to "be harmful to or to incite harm against" whites.
Malema's critics have argued the song could incite attacks on white farmers. South African police say such attacks are criminal, not inspired by politics or racism, and that they are working to decrease them along with other crimes in South Africa. Rates of violent crime are high in South Africa, particularly in urban areas populated for the most part by blacks.
Musician Mabusha Masekela — who comes from a South African family in which music and politics intersect — said a court case should not take the place of conversations among black and white South Africans about how they see their history, and how they want to build their future. Going to court to try to silence one another won't resolve tensions, said Masekela, whose mother Barbara Masekela is a former South African ambassador to Washington and whose uncle Hugh Masekela is among South Africa's best known musicians.
Getting a court to ban one man from singing "Shoot the boer," Mabusha Masekela said, could inspire South Africans all over the country to sing the song, "just because they've been told they can't."