JOHANNESBURG – A song that advocates the killing of white farmers has ignited debate about race and free speech and raised questions about the sticking power of efforts toward achieving racial reconciliation.
After Johannesburg's South Gauteng High Court ruled last week that the song violates hate-speech laws, the ruling African National Congress — which for decades led the fight against the brutal and racist system of apartheid — said it would appeal in court for the right to sing what it called an important anti-apartheid anthem.
The controversy underscores fissures 16 years after the country's first all-race elections marked the fall of apartheid.
The song "Ayesaba Amagwala," which in Zulu means "cowards are afraid," was resurrected last month when ANC Youth Leader Julius Malema led college students in belting out the song. It includes the lyrics "shoot the Boere." Boere means white farmers in Afrikaans, the language of descendants of early Dutch settlers, or Afrikaners.
The ANC insists the song is a valuable part of its cultural heritage and that the lyrics — which also refer to the farmers as thieves and rapists — are not intended literally and are therefore not hate speech. ANC spokesman Jackson Mthembu told The Associated Press on Wednesday that banning the song would disrespect those who died and were jailed in the decades-long struggle against apartheid.
But representatives from AfriForum, an Afrikaner lobby group, said the lyrics are hate speech. The group says that since Malema sang the song in public, there has been a spike in killings of white farmers, with four killed in the previous week. AfriForum lawyer Willie Spies said that while he could not prove a link, he noted that top politicians wield considerable influence over South Africans.
"Obviously we come from a divided past," he said. "We need to aim toward the future, and given the fact that crime is a critical problem in South Africa, and that criminal attacks on South African farms are a very pertinent issue, we believe it is hugely insensitive for the ruling party to keep the so-called struggle songs, inciting people to shoot or kill the Boere."
Mthembu denied the song has motivated any attacks.
"All of us will fight with whatever we have in our veins to stop any killings, including killing of white farmers," Mthembu said. "This is regrettable, but there is no correlation between the two."
Songs have long been a weapon of resistance in South Africa. When the rights of blacks and others were crushed or suppressed under white rule, songs became a rallying cry. They were sung at trials and on the way to the gallows. At mass funerals, thousands hummed mournful hymns as coffins were lowered into the ground. From across the borders came songs of exile and armed struggle.
"If you allow this (ban), you must ban all of our liberation songs," Mthembu said. "Some of the things of our history was bad. Apartheid was bad enough. There are some symbols in our country that come from the era of apartheid. We cannot destroy those symbols. Those symbols are there, as bad as they might be."
Still, apartheid symbols have been disappearing in democratic South Africa. In Johannesburg, a main road used to be named for apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd. It is now called Bram Fischer Drive, after the former Communist Party leader who advocated the overthrow of white rule. Johannesburg's main airport used to be named after Jan Smuts — an Afrikaner prime minister of South Africa in the early and mid-20th century — but now is O.R. Tambo airport, named for an anti-apartheid hero.
Lawrence Schlemmer, vice president of the conservative Institute for Race Relations, said he believes "Ayesaba Amagwala" is provocative and proposed singing it in watered-down form.
"In the history of cultural symbolism, many unpleasant things have been softened to allow them to survive," he said, adding that the song cannot retain its current inflammatory lyrics "in a society that has to preserve a certain degree of harmony." It's not the first time an apartheid-era freedom song has caused a kerfuffle in post-apartheid South Africa.
President Jacob Zuma is famous for singing "Umshini Wami," or "Bring Me My Machine Gun," which was sung at clandestine ANC military training camps abroad where frustrated guerrillas wished for weapons so they could return to South Africa and fight apartheid.