By Beth Vale
A week ago, the equality court announced its verdict that the lyrics of struggle song “Dubul’ ibhunu” or “shoot the boer’ should be considered hate speech. The trial has evoked months of public debate and has not been short of media commentary.
Despite this, it is only in the last few days that I have begun to formulate my own views on the meaning and outcome of this much-talked-about case. But why has it taken me so long? Firstly, the polarised nature of public and private conversation about this case raises many quandaries: So, question the appropriateness of singing “shoot the boer” and you are likely typecast as a paranoid white who would much rather live in New Zealand than be made to feel the least bit uncomfortable; or question the public hysteria over “shoot the boer” and you’re accused of dismissing damaging racial stereotypes and defeating the object of nation-building. The second reason why formulating a coherent position has been difficult is because the issues this case raises are emotionally-charged, messy and complex, and so too has been my response.
I do not believe that “shoot the boer” is a call to arms or a potential catalyst for racial genocide. I cannot attribute farm killings or the murder of Eugene Terre’Blanche to the singing of a struggle song — these murders, while brutal and unjustified, are more likely to be a response to the appalling and repressive conditions under which farm workers live and work.
That AfriForum was able to take their case to the equality court, consuming time and resources, is no doubt a reflection of what money and power can achieve in the South African justice system, where only 7% of reported rapes result in convictions. In addition, I don’t believe this was a matter for the courts to begin with. In line with other commentators, I consider the banning of the song to be impractical and an infringement on free speech. “Shoot the boer” needs no legislation on whether or not it can be sung.
Although the role of this song in contemporary South Africa is not something that I believe the court can or should decide, I do not consider the public debate around this case to have been “trivial” or a “waste of time”. Some have dismissed public conversation around this struggle song by saying we should focus on “real issues”. But the concerns, anxieties and fears that this debate highlights are very real and highly relevant. They point to a key question which all of us, who are dedicated to the success of this country, must continue to grapple with: What role should the past play in our present?
“Dubul’ ibhunu” is a part of South Africa’s history. Not only that, it is part of a struggle history that I believe we should be proud of — a struggle in which the Boer as a representation of Afrikaner nationalism served as a symbol of apartheid oppression. Post-apartheid, very little about our socio-economic structures has changed. Perhaps there are a few more black faces among the elite, but our systems of health, economics, education, spatial design and politics still repress the poor majority. The centuries-old South African syndrome of white wealth and black poverty is by no means a thing of the past.
Does this make “shoot the boer” relevant for post-apartheid South Africa? I think not. Not only is singing the song as a method of political campaigning insensitive and unconstructive, it re-directs attention onto a straw man “oppressor” and glosses over the true oppressor in post-apartheid South Africa — an institutionalised condition in which power is profit, development is a world-class stadium, democracy is nothing more than a mark on a ballot sheet, and public discourse is about spitting racial slander and engendering as much controversy as possible. Is this not what our struggle songs should be about?
AfriForum’s response to “shoot the boer”, Archbishop Tutu’s call for “white tax” and recent discussions in the Mail & Guardian point to a pressing need to address the question of whiteness in contemporary South Africa.
Beyond whiteness, it is a question of how to grapple with inherited, arbitrary and exorbitant privilege in the context of aspiring democracy. It is this pressing need which leads me to argue that groups like AfriForum must be engaged and challenged rather than dismissed.
Some may ask why we should give time to the existential crisis of privileged white South Africans when there are many more important issues at stake. This, I believe, is a dangerous trivialisation of the issue. The question of how to respond to privileged whiteness in contemporary South Africa has implications for how we resolve the more important issues of socio-economic justice and the restoration of human dignity. The insecurities and fears of the oppressed poor majority are bound up with those of the privileged minority and our shared future is dependent on the resolution of both — in conversation with one another.
A history of inherited and manufactured privilege at the expense of the black majority has endowed most white South Africans with more and better education, opportunities, healthcare and living conditions. This is not an opinion to be debated — it is a fact of our country. But what role should these endowments from the past play in our present?
Defensive and hostile responses to this question are all too easy. Instead, the necessary acknowledgement, collective shame and regret for this state of affairs needs to operate in a way that can contribute to real, radical redress — ploughing back privilege for redistribution and reconciliation. Many white South Africans — including those participating in the academic debate on whiteness — have already begun this journey.
The onus of the struggle for socio-economic justice is all-too-often situated with the poor. But socio-economic change will need a revolution from the rich — a revolution of acknowledgement and self-sacrifice. I believe all South Africans should thoughtfully and constructively engage with the question of privileged whiteness in our contemporary context. Not to locate blame for the past or to make whites feel more comfortable in the present but because it is precisely the discomfort of those conversations that will lead to more honest and meaningful contributions from all South Africans in the public space.
Beth Vale is a humanities student at the Aids in Society Research Unit at the University of Cape Town.