By David Smith

Freedom of expression is an absolute. Unless, of course, the politics of South African president Jacob Zuma‘s re-election are in play.

On Wednesday the governing African National Congress (ANC) promised to stop singing the anti-apartheid ditty Dubula iBhunu (Shoot the Boer) to avoid hurting the feelings of white farmers and inflaming racial tension.

It may be no coincidence that the song’s lead vocalist was Julius Malema, who was embraced in the days when he promised to “kill for Zuma” but has since become the president’s arch enemy.

Thus the defence of Malema’s right to free speech appears to have become less of a priority than, say, attacking artist Brett Murray’s right to free speech when he painted Zuma with genitals exposed.

Both cases underlined how South Africa‘s racial past still saturates its political and intellectual life. The ANC claimed Shoot the Boer is a vital part of its struggle heritage; white farmers (the “Boers”) said it was hate speech in a context where, they claim, farmers are frequently attacked and murdered – some even refer, counter-productively, to a “genocide“.

Whether white farmers really are uniquely vulnerable to violent crime is itself hotly disputed and politically charged. Last month the South African Institute of Race Relations issued research suggesting not; a week later it did a U-turn and suggested they are.

At Wednesday’s supposed truce in Johannesburg, a farmer representative said: “I am not exaggerating by saying farmers are not happy. What the issues are, are farm attacks and farm murders, the other issue is land reform.”

Bristling at that, Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary-general, shot back: “There is no section of the population that has a monopoly on anger and disaffection.”

Murray’s painting The Spear, conversely, was the work of a white artist (and anti-apartheid activist) who believed Zuma is fair game for criticism and has made his sex life a public issue. Opponents in the ANC and beyond argued that it was offensive in a context where black people have suffered centuries of objectification and humiliation. Too soon.

Yet there was also dispute over whether nudity and satire can be said to be “unAfrican” and whether “traditional African culture” is really a fixed, monolithic set of values that Murray had transgressed.

With battle lines drawn, both cases called for some healthy South African pragmatism and reconciliation, and both were ultimately settled out of court. Less inspiringly, there is a lingering suspicion that factional squabbles inside the ANC were the guiding hand.

The pro-Zuma troops who marched on the Goodman Gallery to demand the removal of The Spear had made their point ahead of the ANC internal leadership contest at Mangaung in December.

As for Shoot the Boer, it was time to starve Malema of the oxygen of publicity after a two-year legal fight which included a high court ruling that it was “hate speech”, after which Malema continued to sing the song but with the words Shoot the Boer changed to Kiss the Boer.

Mantashe naturally denied that Wednesday’s deal was struck because Malema is now a thorn in Zuma’s side. But Niren Tolsi, writing on the Mail & Guardian website, wasn’t buying it: “The ANC’s case – the decent fight for the freedom of expression – appeared winnable. The high-profile nature of the case would also mean Malema would again be in the spotlight. Only this time, sharing platforms alongside the ANC leaders who had cast him out.

“Could the ANC leadership intent on returning for another five years when the party holds its electoral conference in just over a month’s time afford such public exposure to the man who appears intent on deposing its current president, Zuma?”

Tolsi added: “If Mantashe and the ANC have ceded ground on a noble deepening of South Africa‘s definition of freedom of speech and hate speech for party political reasons, then they would appear to be singing to the tune of the boers (in its historical sense).”

Black skin, white skin or thin skin? It seems everyone has skin in the game.

David Smith is the Guardian’s Africa correspondent.


  • The Guardian's Africa blog and network showcases strong, sometimes conflicting opinions from inside and outside the continent in collaboration with a network made up of a dozen independent sites. Our partners include solo bloggers and group blogs from established institutions such as the Mail & Guardian's Thought Leader. Add to this mix the Guardian's own correspondents and exclusive pieces from regional experts, and we hope you will be informed, engaged, provoked, annoyed and moved.


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The Guardian's Africa blog and network showcases strong, sometimes conflicting opinions from inside and outside the continent...

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