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Of ancestors, shoot the boer and muti

A discourse analysis of utterances by members of the ANC yields interesting results. By discourse analysis here I mean an analysis of linguistic practices through a focus on the link between linguistic meaning and the power relations such linguistic practices serve.

First, the ANC’s persistence in defending their right to sing the liberation song containing the lyrics “dubul’ ibhunu” or “shoot the boer”, at a time when the liberation struggle — in military and political terms — is 17 years behind South Africans, is an unmistakable discursive index of their inability or unwillingness, to switch resolutely to the role of a political party in a modern/postmodern multi-party democracy. As I have argued before, to sing the song in this new context is a serious misinterpretation of the decisive differences between today and the period preceding 1994. I believe that the song was recently labelled as incitement to murder in the high court, without leave to appeal. The ANC is steaming mad at this — another indication that it is either unaware of, or wilfully ignores, the discursive irreconcilability between the practice of singing it today, and the previous context, when its singing made some sense for ANC cadres fighting the apartheid government.

One is immediately constrained to ask why it is deemed to be in their interest to do so at this stage in the ANC’s history as a political party. Politics is all about the wielding of power in a societal context, of course, so that it is easy to infer their — specifically Malema’s — reasons for continuing with what should be an obsolete practice: in a discursive context, the power served by the meaning of the song, is supposedly to galvanise the support of voters for the ANC, or more accurately, for an image of it as (still being a) liberation party. The implication of this is, of course, that there is still something to be liberated from, and that the “Boere” are somehow complicit with this oppressive force, whatever it may be. And language being what it is, namely discourse, in a social context it is probable that a lot of people would be influenced by this to support the ANC — judging by the crowds who have been supporting Malema at his hate speech trial, this is indeed the case, let alone judging by some of the slogans they have displayed on posters outside the courtroom.

Needless to repeat, South Africans should be way beyond such retrogressive, atavistic discursive tactics. The question is whether the ANC as an organisation is mature enough to move beyond them. I do believe that some members of the ANC such as Trevor Manuel have already moved beyond them. But I’m afraid that if one samples another discursive specimen from ANC discourse, this time an utterance by Jacob Zuma, the answer seems to be in the negative. Recently the president (no less) of South Africa, campaigning for the ANC in the run-up to municipal elections, was quoted as warning voters that not voting for the ANC would be tantamount to invoking the ire of “the ancestors”.

The first thing that strikes one about this in discourse-analytical terms is that it reflects a measure of anxiety, if not desperation, about the forthcoming elections insofar as the phrase “the ancestors” represents a domain of meaning and power that, strictly speaking, lies outside of the secular domain of politics. At least this is supposedly the case, and has been, since the end of the western Middle Ages, when a religion-dominated era was gradually replaced by a largely secular, predominantly political era (it was the era of the centrality of the nation-state, which we are today in the process of breaching, en route to another, possibly supra-national era). Invoking “the ancestors” on the part of Zuma is equivalent to another party leader (say that of the ACDP or perhaps the DA) telling voters that they risk facing the extreme displeasure of the Christian God unless they vote for their party. It is surely abundantly clear that there is a discursive incompatibility or anomaly here or what philosophers refer to as a “category mistake” — discursively speaking, neither the “ancestors”, nor God, has anything to do with how people vote. Whatever one’s religious beliefs may be, these concepts, or entities, presumably have something to do with one’s spiritual wellbeing instead.

But there is another discursive thread here that cannot be ignored, connected as it is, to the invocation of the “ancestors”: it belongs to the discourse of pre-modernity to place one’s trust in supernatural entities like these, at least where the political and social organisation of a people is concerned. Since the advent of modernity — from about the 17th century onwards — “reason” in its broadest sense has been the court of appeal when it comes to matters political, ethical, scientific, aesthetic and technological. And there is scant sign of this in an appeal to the “ancestors” in a political domain.

Following this line of discourse further, it readily connects with another discursive symptom of prevailing, if lamentable, pre-modern beliefs of the worst kind in SA, namely the continuing practice of muti murders (regularly reported on in the local press). Muti murders are predicated on the pre-modern, superstitious belief that human body parts, ranging from eyes, ears and tongues, to genitals, can be instrumental in curing people’s ailments. Or worse, in providing one with the personal power you need to prevail over some enemy or to secure the wife, or husband, of one’s desire. From a discourse-analytical perspective, it is only within a situation characterised by pervasive superstitious beliefs like these that a call on voters to support the ANC, lest the wrath of the “ancestors” be visited upon them, would stand any chance of gaining a purchase on voters’ minds (or more importantly, their pencil-wielding hands on voting day).

The persistence of these superstitions and the ANC’s unscrupulous tapping into them, instead of promoting a collective situation where people are disabused of superstition and encouraged to act more rationally, is lamentable. SA is supposed to be a (modern, postmodern?) democracy, constituted as such by a very progressive Constitution, which, to say the least, requires a modicum of rationality from its citizens, including, if not especially, its political leaders. And for political leaders to stoop to this kind of pre-modern discursive strategy is counter-productive in this respect but probably not regarding the aim it is supposed to achieve.

I am not saying that people should not continue practising ancestral worship, if that is their chosen or inherited, religious tradition. I am saying that to believe the ancestors would somehow “punish” you for not voting for a specific political party, is unadulterated superstition, just as it would be superstitious to believe that the Christian God would exact punitive measures if one does not vote for a specific party. Do people really believe that only supporters of certain parties, and not others, have a monopoly on the favours of supernatural beings? If they do, they only have themselves to blame. They should attempt to emulate Immanuel Kant’s call to enlightenment, namely “Sapere aude!“, “have the courage to think for yourself!” But that is too much to hope for, not only here, but in the rest of the world too.


  • Bert Olivier

    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.