For the past week, South Africa has been gripped by a courtroom drama that, 17 years after the end of apartheid, exposes how wide the country’s racial divide can still be. Julius Malema, the enfant terrible of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), is on trial for hate speech because of his insistence on singing a protest song which includes the words “Kill the Boer.” Malema, who turned up at Johannesburg’s Equality Court surrounded by bodyguards touting machine guns, says the song is a struggle anthem and part of the ANC’s proud history of resistance against white rule. “Boer” is a term for descendants of Dutch colonizers, or Afrikaners, but is also a generic term for the architects of apartheid, and even all whites.
ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe told the court on Tuesday: “It’s about protecting a history and heritage.” But Afrikaner rights group, AfriForum, which brought the case against Malema, claims the song is racist and has incited numerous murders of white farmers. Their evidence has included testimony that the song is not historic, but a recent invention.
The case has become a battleground between vehemently unreconciled elements on either side of South Africa’s black-white racial divide. On one side are radical ANC figures such as Malema and the former wife of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela; on the other Afrikaner farmers and activists. If they have any common ground, it is that both accuse the other of oppression and racism. Here, in court today, is Malema singing the song that lit a fire under South Africa’s racial tensions once again.