An expert's point of view on a current event.

Dark Clouds in the Rainbow Nation

Punishing a South African youth leader for hate speech doesn't do anything to suppress the anger of a generation.


The pair of proceedings dominating the South African news right now were ostensibly designed to pass judgment on one particular man: Julius Malema, the fiery president of the ruling African National Congress’s (ANC) youth league who claims to speak for a growing mass of angry, young, black poor. But the two cases proceeding against Malema — one a charge of violating South Africa’s constitutional ban against hate speech by repeatedly singing an old protest song that glorifies shooting white people, the other an internal party inquiry on violating the ANC’s own constitution by "sowing divisions" within its ranks — are actually putting something much bigger than Malema himself on the stand. South Africa’s entire approach to post-apartheid transformation is on trial.

Malema represents a sharp break with South Africa’s course over the last 15 years. At 30, he is old enough to remember apartheid — he often talks of running out of his little house in the poor, hot province of Limpopo in 1993, just after the assassination of freedom fighter Chris Hani, gun in hand, to shoot some whites in retaliation, until he heard that Nelson Mandela was appealing for calm — but only just old enough. Mostly, he is a product of South Africa after apartheid ended in 1994, and his rhetoric differs vastly in style and substance from that of older leaders who got their political education under apartheid.

Those leaders exude a sense of relief, of satisfaction, over the big battle won; Malema’s theme is the work yet to be done. Where Mandela radiated placidity and emphasized peace, Malema has an activist fervor verging on violence. He brags he would kill for the party elders he admires; he arrived at his recent court appearances with a wake of private bodyguards draped in semiautomatic weapons. He brazenly calls the organization he leads, the ANC’s youth wing, a "radical and militant" organization and one of his adversaries in the opposition party a "cockroach." Where black leaders fastidiously avoided anti-white rhetoric after 1994 as a nod to reconciliation, Malema rarely fails to attach the word "white" to the evils he inveighs against in his rallies and speeches: he vows to take back farmland stolen by whites, he wants to nationalize white-owned gold and platinum mines. And where South African leaders in the 1990s charted a course of slow, even timid economic transformation to keep foreign investors happy and preserve the country’s industrial economy, Malema brashly calls for a radical overhaul of South Africa’s economic structures. His mission in life, he told a group of young supporters on Saturday, Sept. 10, is to wage "economic war" against the still-pampered "white minority." South African elites long feared the post-colonial example of Zimbabwe next door. Malema praises Robert Mugabe and traveled to Harare last year to see how Comrade Bob got things done.

Given the new, angrier style of his politics, it’s a little ironic that the thing that finally brought Malema to a reckoning was his devotion to an old protest song from the apartheid era. "Dubula Ibhunu" means, in the Zulu language, "Shoot the Boer" — "Boer" being an old-fashioned nickname for Afrikaners, the descendents of South Africa’s early Dutch colonials. "The cowards are scared/these dogs are raping/shoot the Boer," the lyrics go. It was just one of many ardently angry songs composed during the height of apartheid-era oppression. In the past few years, Malema has given it new life by selecting it as a sort of anthem to sing at his rallies.

His flamboyant refusal to stop singing it — along with the trip to Zimbabwe, the labeling of a political opponent a cockroach (a word redolent of the Rwandan genocide), and a recent bid to destabilize the ruling regime in neighboring Botswana — has made him dramatically more famous within South Africa, and apparently popular with a large though somewhat ill-defined segment of South African youth. (South Africa doesn’t have the kind of constant public-opinion polling the United States does, so it’s harder to know exactly who supports whom, but Malema won reelection unanimously this summer at his youth league’s annual conference.) His behavior also led the country’s ruling elite to wonder whether the young leader they once admired for his energy was going dangerously off the rails. And so this year a group of Afrikaner leaders took him to court for propagating hate speech, which is banned by the South African Constitution. Simultaneously, elders within the ANC informed him they were charging him with violating the party’s constitution, dragging him to an internal disciplinary hearing and even considering expelling him from the party.

The outcome of the ANC’s disciplinary hearing is expected within days. The "Shoot the Boer" court case was just decided: On Monday, Sept. 12, a Johannesburg judge, Colin Lamont, found Malema guilty of hate speech, rejecting his argument that chanting his favorite song merely paid tribute to a vital piece of anti-apartheid history and prohibiting him and all his followers in the youth league from singing it.

Even legal observers who have little affection for Malema were surprised by the zeal of the judge’s written decision. Lamont invoked the African philosophy of ubuntu, or togetherness: In 1994, he wrote, South African society was refounded on a particular and special "morality" of ubuntu. The preservation of this foundational ideal is so important that it trumps even the otherwise-sacred right to free speech. In the new South Africa, "the enemy has become the friend, the brother," Lamont wrote. "This new approach to each other must be fostered."

On his popular blog, South Africa’s leading constitutional scholar, Pierre de Vos, called Lamont’s reasoning "drastic." Can you really prohibit, he asked, a whole loosely defined bulk of people — Malema’s followers — from singing a historic protest song in a free country? But the judge’s decision contained as much emotional reasoning as it did legal. It reflected the perception that the challenge Malema’s style poses to South Africa’s post-apartheid identity as a place devoted to nurturing tolerance is itself drastic.

South African elites are hoping a legal slap and the party-expulsion threat will blunt Malema’s bravado and take a bit of the wind out of his sails. The ruling party simply must tame him and not "allow him to do the wrong things," President Jacob Zuma explained to a South African news website on Tuesday. But even if Malema comes out of these storms battered personally, the wave of popular sentiment that has been lifting him up may just lift other, similar boats to take his place. For Malema is channeling — albeit in an extreme, almost campy fashion — views and moods shared by many in his emerging generation. Elders who work with young South Africans notice a strain of frustration they didn’t expected to see in the lucky kids who are getting the chance to grow up without the shackles of apartheid. These so-called "born frees" don’t all seem to feel their situation is a blessing, though. "There is a lot of anger going around among segments of black students on South African campuses," Jonathan Jansen, a prominent educator, warned last year in a newspaper column.

This anger isn’t so hard to understand. Millions of black South Africans in the cities still live in the same kind of crowded shack ghettos that blacks were forced to live in under apartheid; in the countryside, many still lack access to reliable electricity and water. Income inequality has actually grown in the 17 years since apartheid ended, and that inequality still maps onto race, with the average white South African still earning more than four times the average black one. In the United States, Americans despair at 9 percent unemployment; among youth in South Africa, unemployment tops 50 percent. Every year, tens of thousands of teenagers pass their high-school graduation exams with no prospect of getting a job and entering a life commensurate with their education — or, maybe even more importantly, reflecting their supposedly improved social status. To many young South Africans, it’s an infuriating mystery why having a decent life should still be so hard for so many people so many years after the end of white rule.

Malema’s rhetoric implies a simple answer: that black leaders’ original gentleness and emphasis on reconciliation and multiculturalism — ubuntu — were a mistake, or at the very least are becoming increasingly irrelevant as time goes on and some of the structural problems of post-apartheid society become more exposed. An abstract, new notion of public morality and treating each other nicely should not have been the final goal of the freedom struggle, Malema is telling us. It should have been more dramatic, more visible, and somehow real social change. In the absence of that, the struggle for freedom is not over, and — by that logic — the kind of anger expressed in "Shoot the Boer" is still appropriate, even necessary.

Muzzling Malema doesn’t address the root causes of the anger he nourishes. His peculiar flamboyance gives the fire more oxygen, but it will probably smolder on without him. Malema didn’t appear in court on Monday with his weaponry-festooned bodyguards, but after his guilty sentence was read, some of his fans gathered outside the courtroom anyway and sang "Shoot the Boer," the song they had just technically been prohibited from singing. Nobody stopped them.

Eve Fairbanks, a writer living in Johannesburg, is at work on a book about South Africa.