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SA struggle songs must move the nation forward

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By Trevor Ngwane

Freedom of speech and the preservation of historical memory emerged victorious in the court battle between AfriForum and the EFF. The bone of contention was whether the anti-apartheid struggle song Dubul’ ibhunu was hate speech or not.

Judge Edwin Molahlehi ruled that it was not. This judgment raises many questions about the place of struggle songs in South Africa’s cultural and political heritage including what kind of future we want as a people.

The first line in Zahara’s song Thekwane goes: “Umuntu ongaziyo la asuka khona / Ufana nomuntu ongazi la eyakhona”(A person who does not know where she comes from / is like a person who does not know where she is going).

The song is a tribute to struggle heroes Lilian Ngoyi, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Helen Joseph, Steve Biko, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, Richard Mahabane, Langalibalele Dube and Chief Albert Luthuli.

The song seeks to keep alive the memory of these late political leaders. This suggests, as the EFF argued in court, that song is an important medium for communicating and celebrating vital aspects of the struggle for liberation in South Africa. People dancing and swaying to Zahara’s beat not only enjoy themselves, they also find themselves attending a history class.

That is the power of song in preserving historical memory as was argued by Liz Gunner, expert witness of culture, language and performance brought to court by the EFF.

Old songs are part of a people’s cultural heritage. AfriForum objected to Dubul’ ibhunu because it argued that there was a direct connection between farm murders in South Africa and the song which means “Kill the Boer”. The Afrikaners trace their history to the Dutch and Huguenot population which settled in southern Africa in the late 17th century and were called “Boere”.

During the struggle against apartheid, the apartheid regime was premised on Afrikaner nationalism which idealised this history. Black people called the Afrikaners amaBhunu (the Boere) in a descriptive and sometimes pejorative fashion.

AfriForum, which defines itself as a civil rights organisation, is arguably the self-appointed representative of the Afrikaner community. Its vehemence in this role, such as when it invokes gruesome imagery when discussing the murder of white farmers and its depiction of EFF leader Julius Malema as a bloodthirsty and vengeful anti-white black politician, raises the question of where exactly it wants to take the Afrikaner community.

Does it seek the path of healing and reconciliation which Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu worked so hard to make the country follow? Is AfriForum engaging in a form of right-wing, racist populism which we see emerging in many parts of the world such as in Trumpism in the US, Narendra Modi in India, Viktor Orbán in Hungary? Is AfriForum leading us to the future or to the past?

It is often the case that during times of difficulty and crisis, which it can be argued South Africa finds itself in today, people can respond by becoming nostalgic about an ideal past where everything was good.

We have recently seen this in people who fantasise about a time when the city of Johannesburg was “clean”, “not congested” and “without crime and grime”. Such sentiments often combine with xenophobia and people forget that in the past the streets were kept clean and tidy by apartheid laws such as the curfew against black people, the anti-loitering laws, influx control and the suppression of black business which involved the hounding of black street traders.

AfriForum should not homogenise Afrikaner people and treat them as if they are a monolith in its claim to speak for this community. Nor should it use its legitimate concern for farm murders and the discomfort at the lyrics of certain struggle songs as a cover to avoid the issues which the EFF was arguably formed to address and is so outspoken about, namely economic transformation and land redistribution.

The judge pointed out that some incidents blamed on the EFF by the AfriForum happened many years before Malema’s party was formed. AfriForum’s struggle against the EFF might be a proxy for a battle to defend ill gotten wealth, that is, white privileges acquired through anti-black racism, dispossession and violence.

Apartheid is gone but millions of people must contend with continuities of past racial, class and gender oppressions and exploitations. Indeed, the racialisation of poverty, unemployment and inequality in South Africa suggests that instead of a rainbow nation we live in a society that must be called racial capitalism.

The courts are not the best place to discuss the pros and cons of elements of a cultural heritage that is mired in oppression and exploitation. Such discussions belong to academic lecture halls, library archives and, I would suggest, a national conversation about these thorny issues that is informed by an emancipatory forward-looking spirit.

That is the only way we can overcome the hatreds, resentments and anxieties of the past. Social justice is the heritage and future that we want to leave our children and grandchildren.

Ngwane is the Director of the Centre for Sociological Research and Practice at the University of Johannesburg.