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Shoot the boer: Is meaning ever conclusive?

In the course of reading some of the reports on Julius Malema’s hate speech trial, it struck me that there was something that was woefully absent from the evidence — pro as well as contra — given in its course. At the outset I should stress that I have not attended the trial, and that it is conceivable that some witnesses and/or legal representatives may actually have demonstrated that they do have the kind of knowledge or understanding (discussed below) that seems to me, as far as I can tell from reports on the trial, to be lacking.

If I understand things correctly, the gist of Afriforum’s case against Malema is that the song Awudubhule ibhunu constitutes hate speech against Afrikaners in South Africa, in as far as it encourages violence against — and with it, hatred of — Afrikaners. As such, it claims, singing the song should be banned, and Julius Malema is singled out as the person who, by singing the song in public, most conspicuously encourages this violence and hatred against an ethnic minority.

On the other hand — again, if I understand things correctly — the witnesses who testified on behalf of Malema, in his and the ANC’s defence, have more or less argued that the song in question is part of the struggle history of the ANC, and as such, should be allowed to remain part of that history, instead of consigning it to obsolescence, as it were, by banning its being sung. Malema himself, in his own defence, has claimed that, when he is singing the song, he is not encouraging anyone to kill Afrikaners — or farmers, for that matter, one would assume. Witnesses for the defence have claimed that there is no connection between the song’s performance and farm murders.

Some witnesses for the defence have claimed that the singing of the song at ANC camps during the struggle years was intended to lift the morale of liberation fighters, and that this strengthens the claim that it should remain part of this legacy, just as the song, Sarie Marais, is part of Afrikaner history of struggle against the British during the Anglo-Boer war(s). Deputy Minister, Hanekom, testifying on behalf of Malema, for instance, claimed the song was “not a call to violence, but a reference to a period or a system where people took up arms”.

At one point Winnie Madikizela-Mandela even claimed that Gwede Mantashe would “educate” the “illiterate” court, presumably about the meaning of the struggle songs like the one under consideration.

Sadly, no “education” of any kind was forthcoming, as far as I could see, from either side in this dispute, because nowhere — not even on the part of the witness who was supposedly an authority on the history of struggle songs — was there an indication that anyone had significant knowledge of the way that signs — or signifiers, to be more exact (of which language is composed) — work. I say this because witnesses for both the prosecution and the defence have insisted on limiting the meaning of the song to a specific set of meanings.

On the one hand, there are those meanings that cluster together under the umbrella of: “‘Shoot the boer’ is a song that is offensive to Afrikaners because it promotes hostility and hatred towards them whenever it is sung”; on the other hand, we have the meanings attributed to it which can be subsumed under the heading of: “‘Shoot the boer’ is a song that is part of the struggle history of the ANC, and as such should be preserved, and can conceivably be sung (at least) whenever the struggle is commemorated”.

Neither side appears to be correct, at least in as far as they seem to me to be denying the meaning(s) attributed to the song by the opposing camp. However, this appears to be less the case for Afriforum’s side (because their claim about the song’s present offensiveness and promotion of violence does not contradict the meaning that their opponents claim it had during the struggle: both can be valid at the same time). By highlighting the meaning that it attributes to the song, though, Afriforum’s legal representative(s) and supporting witnesses do create the impression that the meaning attributed to it by the ANC’s witnesses is invalid. And all of this, I believe, shows a lack of understanding regarding the way that signs (including the lyrics of songs) generate meaning.

Why do I say this? Every sign — whether it is a word, an image, image-configuration, or a gesture — has two “sides”, known in semiotics as a “signifier” and a “signified”. A spoken or written word is a “signifier”, and its (conceptual) meaning is the “signified”. So, for instance, the word “lion” is a signifier, and its signified (or meaning) is something like: “carnivorous, tawny-coloured mammalian quadruped predator”. In this sense, a lion would seem to be a lion once and for all. But the meaning (signified) of the word, “lion”, while primarily, in its natural habitat, amounting to its being a carnivorous predator, is not restricted to this for all time. In certain situations of captivity, lions have been tamed, or even “domesticated” to a degree, and here different descriptions (meanings) would add to the meaning of “lion” — the well-known lioness, Elsa, which (I was tempted to say “who”) was brought up by Joy Adamson of Born Free fame, for example, merited a different set of signifiers to describe her — signifiers with corresponding signifieds that deviated significantly from the primary signifiers describing “lion”. To be sure, the primary description of a lion remains latent in the case of a “domesticated” lion like Elsa, but an additional set of signifiers enriches the primary set.

To sum up: any set of signifiers describing a phenomenon/thing/event/activity is valid within a “primary” context (if such a primary context can be identified), BUT this does not exhaust the meaning(s) of the phenomenon in question. As Jacques Derrida has famously put it (in his essay: Signature Event Context): No context (of meaning) is saturable. What does this mean, that no meaning-context can be saturated? Simply that, while one should always be able to uncover, or trace, the (primary or dominant) meaning(s) of a signifier or set of signifiers, by searching for the signifieds or meanings in question, because language is an open system of meaning, new meanings can be added to older meanings as time passes. The fact that this happens does not invalidate the “older” meanings WITHIN THE CONTEXTS where they obtained.

Here’s an interesting example of what I mean: virtually everyone living in a city today would know the meaning (signified) of the signifier, “computer”, namely, an electronic device or apparatus capable of performing a variety of functions, ranging from calculation or computation, through word-processing to storage and processing of information in various ways, depending on the “software programmes” that it uses. (This is off the top of my head; computer boffins would be able to give better descriptions than mine.) But here’s the surprise: “computer” also has an older meaning, which is hardly valid today, but in its historical context was perfectly valid and meaningful. About a hundred years ago, the signifier or word “computer” signified or meant “a person, usually an unmarried woman, employed at (astronomical) observatories, to compute the distances between various astronomically relevant objects, such as planets, stars, moons, comets, meteorites, and so on”. It literally meant a person who computes.

In Derrida’s terms, however, this signified or meaning of the term “computer”, which was the case in the context of astronomical calculations, does not exhaust the possible meanings that the term could conceivably have, as history has indeed taught us: its (primary) context was not “saturable”, which simply means that its meaning could not be restricted to that primary meaning, not even if a king, a parliament, or a court decreed that it should be. Whatever the “primary” meaning or signified of a word, a painting, an archaeological discovery, may be, the fact that language remains open to new meanings, ensures that new meanings may be added to those primary ones. This does not so much ‘contradict’ the primary meanings, at least not in relation to the primary contexts within which they arose, but the new meanings are located in historically new contexts, which cannot, on pain of incomprehension (or worse, injustice), be ignored.

I am sure that, by now, the implications of these broadly semiotic considerations must be clear. Applied to the Malema hate speech trial, it means that Afriforum and the ANC are talking at cross-purposes, because they are talking about a set of linguistic signifiers (“Shoot the boer”) that do not belong to only one (primary) context. As the witnesses for the defence have correctly indicated, the song did have a certain meaning in the context of the historical struggle against apartheid. That struggle, in its historical phase that ended in 1994 (in other respects, it will always continue, everywhere in the world), is no longer the only, or dominant, context within which the performance of the song is understood, as abundantly demonstrated by the fact that such performance has elicited the case against Malema and the ANC.

The song’s primary context of meaning, like all such contexts, was/is not saturable, which means: the song’s meaning cannot be restricted to what the ANC says it means. Sure, this is one of its (historically valid) meanings, but history has overtaken it, and today it is sung in a new context, where new signifieds are generated by the signifiers, “Shoot the boer”. If the ANC is not sensitive to this, they are more stupid (or mischievous) than one would tend to give them credit for.

Conversely, Afriforum has to grant that, in its primary provenance, the song in question did in fact serve to motivate ANC cadres in their justifiable struggle against the oppressive apartheid regime. The fact that, today, Afrikaners (and possibly other South Africans, too) find the song offensive in the new context of a country where black and white people are supposedly united by a progressive constitution, should surprise no one, however. The context has changed. By the same token, the ANC cannot, with certainty, claim that there is no link between the song and farm murders. Signifiers may be decoded regarding their meaning, as I have tried to do here in a responsible and responsive way, but there are no grounds to predict that someone else will (or has) never interpret(ed) the song (irresponsibly) as a call to murder farmers in present-day South Africa.

And to say that this is not the intention of those who sing the song today, is no excuse. That would be falling into the trap of the “intentional fallacy”, namely, that a set of signifiers means what someone intends it to mean. Signifiers (words, images) cannot be restricted in their potential meanings, as Humpty Dumpty tries to do when he tells Alice that “words mean what I say they mean”. One’s intended meaning activates a set of signifieds or meanings latent in signifiers, but all signifiers (words, images) are ambiguous or even more, multivocal, depending on the contexts in which they are used, and responsible speakers should be aware of this.

Julius Malema himself, when, at one point in his own defence, he claimed (with surprising insight) that one should be ‘sensitive to the occasion’ when one sings “Shoot the boer”, showed that he is quite aware of the difference that a context makes to the manner in which the meaning(s) of an utterance is received. To continue doing it, would, I believe, therefore be somewhat mischievous. By all means, respect the significance that the song has/had in the course of the struggle – and this goes for Afriforum, too — but by the same token, respect the meanings that are generated by singing the song, no longer in ANC camps outside of South Africa, but in a multicultural South Africa where a sense of mutual trust should be cultivated, instead of continuing mistrust.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.