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Song, killing raise racial tensions in South Africa

The country, about to get the global spotlight for hosting the World Cup, is roiled by an anti-white farmer ditty and the death of supremacist Eugene TerreBlanche.

April 10, 2010|By Robyn Dixon
  • Supporters of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement and others attend the funeral of white supremacist Eugene TerreBlanche in Ventersdorp, South Africa. The group vowed to seek revenge.
Supporters of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement and others attend the… (Kim Ludbrook…)

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa —
Shoot, shoot.
Shoot the Boer.
Shoot, shoot.
Shoot the Boer.
Shoot, shoot.
-- From an apartheid-era song revived recently by African National Congress youth leader Julius Malema


It was a terrible week for race relations in South Africa.

Exhibit A: A photo of a bloody tooth of slain white supremacist Eugene TerreBlanche knocked out during his killing, splashed across front pages of newspapers.

Exhibit B: The expensive court battle on whether the song calling for the killing of Boers, referring to white farmers, is hate speech or a noble part of the history of liberation from a racist regime.

Exhibit C: An outburst by Malema, who threw a white BBC journalist out of a news conference after calling him a "bloody agent" and "bastard" with a "white tendency."

One African weekly newspaper summed it up Friday with the headline "Idiotocracy."

Many South Africans wondered how race relations could have reached such a low ebb at what should have been a moment of national optimism, two months before the country flings its doors open to the world, hosting soccer's World Cup.

The tournament is widely viewed as a coming-of-age party for the country, its chance to portray itself as an advanced African democracy with a modern economy, efficient infrastructure and a racially tolerant "Rainbow Nation" 16 years after the end of apartheid.

Instead, the rise in racial tensions threatens to derail the unifying feel-good national sentiment that was an expected benefit of the event.

"I think Julius Malema is going for very short-term political leverage, playing on uncertainties and anxieties and resentments," said analyst William Gumede of the University of the Witwatersrand's Graduate School of Public and Development Management. "In the long term, that's going to be very dangerous for South Africa.

"Once you let the genie out of the bottle, it's very difficult to get it back in."

The increased race friction is a defining moment in the tenure of President Jacob Zuma, a leader with such a low-key consensual style that he has been unable to halt the factional battles in the ANC, or curb Malema's divisive rhetoric.

Critics say the leadership vacuum leaves the country drifting, with the ANC government unable to deliver its promises to improve healthcare, education and other services. In the meantime, Malema capitalizes on the vast, disillusioned black underclass by turning its anger and despair against whites and "imperialists."

"What the ANC needs most in these difficult times is much more visionary, competent and honest leaders. That kind of leadership is no longer there. In that vacuum, leaders like Malema enter the fray," Gumede said.

On Saturday, Zuma sharply criticized Malema, saying his comments were alien to ANC culture.

"We reiterate that leaders should think before they speak, as their utterances have wider implications for the country," Zuma told journalists in the eastern city of Durban.

The history of "Shoot the Boer" is contested. The ANC, which is appealing a High Court ban on the song, says it was an important struggle song. But some say the slogan "Kill the Boer, Kill the Farmer" originated in the Pan-Africanist Congress as part of its "One Settler, One Bullet" campaign in the early 1990s.

Even the ANC's stance on the song has varied. When the country's Human Rights Commission ruled in 2003 that the "Shoot the Boer" slogan was hate speech, the party's secretary-general welcomed the judgment, saying, "The utterance has never been, cannot and never will be a slogan of the ANC, nor be used by the ANC at all."

But current ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe said recently that the song shouldn't be erased from history just because some people were sensitive.

"Anyone who relegates this song to hate speech is part of those who are trying to erase our history," he said.

Others contend that the song is offensive because of the frequent killings of white farmers by blacks, often with extreme violence, such as the fatal attack on TerreBlanche the evening before Easter.

TerreBlanche, leader of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement, or AWB, was a politically irrelevant extremist with a minuscule following when he was bludgeoned in his bed by two of his black farmworkers. They said their motive was unpaid wages, according to police.

Yet police also say the killers stripped and humiliated the 69-year-old in a way that suggested extreme racial hatred.

TerreBlanche's loyalists, who allege that Malema's renditions of "Shoot the Boer" in recent months were the real cause of the killing, vowed to take their time to carefully plan revenge.

"We are going to avenge the death of Eugene TerreBlanche, but we are going to our people to ask them what they think and then we will decide a proper and useful strategy and then we will take our revenge," a spokesman for the group, Andre Visagie, said in a phone interview.

It is not just the AWB that is concerned about the violence against farmers.

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