In March of 1991 after months of nationalistic propaganda and other divisive rhetoric from Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, a small group of Serbs and Croats clashed in the Plitvice Lakes National Park on the border between these two countries. Serbs had moved into the park and expelled the park management. Zagreb viewed this as a national insult, an invasion of its newly declared territory and sent in police militia to retake the park. This resulted in a gun battle, in which one Serb and one Croat were killed (quite ironically on Easter Sunday), and sparked the Croatian war of independence in the early 90s in which thousands of people were killed.
The Serb civilian militia that took the park were confident of support from Belgrade. Milosevic, the Serb leader had spent the better part of his early career exposing old wounds, carefully manipulating Serbian history and invoking the oppression folklore of Serbs through the ages. When those men took the park, they did so with the full expectation that their government was ideologically aligned with their actions and would support them, which ultimately they did.
When Julius Malema sings “shoot the boer” he sends that same message of support. When he advocates nationalisation of mines and other private business he sends that message. When he talks of land redistribution and flies off to Zimbabwe to learn how they did it, he sends that message. He tacitly assures his followers of government solidarity in any aggression towards white farmers and white business. He polarises our society and he does it for personal gain.
Hitler, before coming to power in Germany in 1933 (incidentally in the middle of a huge global recession), made the following comments in support of certain inflammatory phrases used by his Nazi party:
During his testimony, Hitler insisted that his party was determined to come to power legally, that the phrase “National Revolution” was only to be interpreted “politically”, and that his party was a friend, not an enemy of the Reichswehr. Sound familiar?
Hitler used the conditions in Germany after the Great Depression to fuel his support and rise to power. His thinly veiled policies of nationalistic indoctrination, racial hatred and revolution were written off much as those of Malema are today but came to the fore once his real power was consolidated by the people that bought into his rhetoric. Hitler knew the power of symbolism and the emotional sway it held over people. He wrapped the downtrodden German nation around his evil little finger by playing on past injustice and symbols of all descriptions.
My intention here is not to compare Malema directly with Hitler. I think that is somehow unfair to both of them. I do, however, feel it is necessary to point out the dangers of what Malema is doing and put it into historical context. To understand his actions we need to ask what his motives are. Why does Malema sing that song? Why does he inflame and incite and stoke the fires of racial division when any thinking person knows and can see that South Africa needs exactly the opposite?
In a country that desperately needs reconciliation; he has chosen the opposite path. He has chosen to open old wounds before they have had a chance to heal. He has decided to rise to power as Milosevic and Hitler did before him: on a wave on nationalistic fervour and emotion. He does not care about the average South African. He does not care about this country or the irreparable damage he may do in his quest for personal status and power. If he did, he would understand that above all we need to settle the past and move forward.
To clarify: I do not support the banning of the song by the high court.
It is not the song that is to blame here. It has its place in our history and should it have been sung during a stage production, a TV documentary or feature in a CD compilation of struggle songs for historic record, there would have been absolutely no problem. Powerful symbols, however, can be powerful weapons. A gun may sit idly in a war museum or be loaded and pointed at your head. As with the gun, “kill the boer” wielded at the right moment to an emotionally charged crowd can kill. It only has to legitimise lethal action in the eyes of a tiny minority, perhaps one or two people, and those acts can alter the course of a nation.
When you raise the temperature and people who follow you believe that they have the support of the leadership and act, you reach flash point. The war in Croatia started with the killing of one Croat and one Serb in a minor skirmish. It escalated from there because both nations were drunk on nationalistic propaganda and were cursed with ambitious and irresponsible leadership. We are in much the same position here in South Africa today.
“Shoot the boer” is not just a song. It is a powerful symbol of an uprising. Singing “kill the boer” is not nostalgic for some people in this country just as the singing of Die Stem and the waving of the old flag is not nostalgic for others. They are both symbols of a dark, racially divided time and invoking them brings all of that old resentment to the surface. Hearing Die Stem as you potter down the rows at the Apartheid Museum is hardly a threat to anybody. Hearing it from a 60 000-strong crowd of emotionally charged whites waving the old flag at Ellis Park is something quite different. It is not the song, the symbol itself; it is the manner in which it is wielded and the occasion at which it is used. It is cheap politics to revive, warp and threaten with these symbols and those who do so are playing with fire and our collective futures in this country.
Eugene Terre’Blanche, prior to his death, was a forgotten joke of South African politics. He was a broken man whose dubious life’s work was in ruin, his vision in tatters and most of us were only too happy to keep it that way. His death, in the middle of the debate about singing songs about killing farmers, has made him a victim and a martyr. Good people who were rightly appalled at his politics are now far more appalled at his death. A man that should have died quietly on his farm, largely forgotten, has become the very symbol of the injustice that South African farmers endure on a daily basis. It’s exactly the kind of PR he would have loved but could never generate in life.
The powerful symbolism expressed by the manner of his death is embedded in the deep irony that he formed his organisation and fought to avoid precisely that outcome. Die “swart gevaar murdering us in our beds” was literally the symbol of fear that he used to gather his support. By doing exactly that his killers have turned him from crackpot to prophet, they proved him right and gave legitimacy to a man that could not have earned it by himself.
The ANC has taken great pains to assure everybody that it was simply a wage dispute gone wrong. That has no relevance. What has relevance here is that a white farmer and leader has been hacked and beaten to death by more than one person in a premeditated attack. He is now one of the thousands of farmers murdered in our country since 1994. Wage disputes are settled by negotiations, strikes and go-slows. Hatred, racial or otherwise, is vented with pangas and blunt objects. This was no ordinary wage dispute. It smacks of a hate crime in every respect.
It takes intense hatred to beat and hack a man to death. Even Eugene Terre’Blanche himself, although he tried hard and went to jail for his efforts, could not quite generate that level of premeditated racial hatred. His killers outdid him at his own game. They proved yet again that racism and hatred have no colour. Those who believe that somehow black people are immune might do well to revise their views.
I have to believe that South Africans will have the maturity to remain calm as they did following the Chris Hani assassination. The glaring difference today, however, is that we do not have leaders with the calming and reconciliatory nature and motives of Mandela. We have Zuma and Malema, self-serving power-mongering children both, and one of the root causes that there is no clear message going out there that taking revenge on farmers and white people is wrong. They invoke the struggle, singing songs of war and killing to their supporters and that is precisely what has manifested on the ground.
Zuma has finally had the good grace to come forward and renounce the emotive singing of struggle songs and asked for leaders to watch what they say. The announcement probably has everything to do with allaying international fears two months before the World Cup. Zuma screwed up by not reining in Malema earlier and this is damage control. That’s all. He was quite comfortable singing his own machine gun songs to get a rise out of the crowds.
Malema is still trying to learn all he can from Mugabe. With any luck, Zanu-PF will snap him up and he will stay where the damage has already been done and spare us from the same.
The time is fast approaching where the deep well of white guilt will dry up and the genuine desire of good white people to be part of a solution will dissolve. The hand of reconciliation is outstretched but the arm is getting tired. The chasm between races here is deepening and the outcome is becoming increasingly uncertain.
The responsibility for this dire situation lies squarely with the ANC now. They run the country, they forge the policy and they speak directly to the majority who are endlessly loyal to them. They have maintained a policy of racial polarisation when fair and legitimate alternative options are available. They could have abolished the concept of race here in South Africa but instead they leverage it and profit from it. They have incited when calming reconciliation was required. They have grossly squandered the resources of this country that should be uplifting the poor and are gorging themselves in a frenzy of self-enrichment. They are a vastly corrupt and inefficient government.
This is not the legacy of apartheid. This is ANC policy in 2010 and there is no excuse good enough to condone it any longer. Should South Africa tumble off the precipice, history will now judge the ANC as responsible. There is a point when you need to take responsibility for your own actions and the situation you find yourself it. For the ANC and its supporters, that time is now here.