Banning a song, violating memories

Posted on September 17, 2011


The ban by a South African court on a liberation song raises questions not only about freedom of expression (and its limits) but also about how a post-colonial society remembers past struggles against tyranny.

The white-dominated civil rights group AgriForum had brought the case in the Equality Court against Julius Malema, the leader of the ANC youth, for singing a liberation era song ‘Awudubula (i) bhulu… Dubula amabhunu baya raypha” (translated as “shoot the Boer/farmer”, “shoot the Boers/farmers they are rapists/robbers”).’ Agriforum argued that this language amounted to hate speech against a minority group of white farmers who have seen an increase in attacks on them in recent years. Malema – and senior figures in the ANC – counter-argue that the song was an important part of the liberation struggle, not an incitement to violence and that any attempt to ban it amounts to an attempt to obliterate a very painful history many are still struggle to come to terms with.

The judge, using a very broad definition of ‘hate speech’, found for AgriForum and banned the song from being sung in private or in public. His argument is odd not only for the legal reasons cited elsewhere. But also because the gist of it is that ‘hate speech’ is one of the key conditions for genocide, that South Africa is no longer really involved in a struggle against apartheid and that a new notion (Ubuntu) and set of values needed to be constructed in the post-apartheid era.

The application of all three of these amounts to quite considerable leaps of logic. This particular song, adopted by the more radical PAC in the 1980s and then the ANCYL after the assassination of their leader Chris Hani has always struck fear into many whites. It is divisive and in certain contexts it could be seen as an incitement to violence.

But the context of communication is everything. If this song was sung in a forum where Malema or anyone else was calling for the expulsion of whites – aka the Asians in Idi Amin’s Uganda – or genocide then the judge may have a point. But if it is sung alongside Zuma’s ‘Bring me my machine [gun]’ and other songs of the era in the context of recalling past struggles and present ones against the continuing legacies of apartheid that would be another.

The Celtic philosopher John O’Donoghue argues that when you wipe a people’s language you damage their soul. It seems to me that when courts ban or try to obliterate their music you violate their memories of past pain. This is even more so in a country with high levels of illiteracy where song has always been a major medium for the building of solidarity and strengthening the resolve to fight. It seems to me that rather than a blanket ban on the song, it would have made more sense to decide on the basis of the context in which it is used.