Struggle songs, heritage and reconciliation

Historic anthems that do not reflect the values of the Constitution are best preserved in museums and other memory sites, writes CECYL ESAU.

ANC Youth League president Julius Malema’s political ascendance in recent years has made him an important opinion leader. His frequent and often controversial public pronouncements are almost always guaranteed to elicit a gamut of emotive responses, frombadulation to derision, and even legal action. Yet love him or hate him, Malema’s frequent public singing of ant-iapartheid anthem Dubulu iBhunu has brought into sharp focus important questions of whether or not South Africa’s historic ‘struggle culture’ has a place in the nation-building and social cohesion projects of the post-apartheid era.

The position of Afriforum has been that the lyrics of Dubulu iBhunu are a polarising force in democratic South Africa. The organisation, which brought charges of hate speech against the Youth League leader earlier this year in the Equality Court, alleges that Malema’s singing of Dubulu iBhunu has provoked targeted violence against white South Africans, and farmers in particular. Afriforum has called for a ban on the historic songs’ lyrics, which it translates as ‘Shoot the Boer’, but Malema and his supporters maintain that it remains an important element of national heritage. In their view, rather than being directed at any group in particular, Dubulu iBhunu echoes an important call to wipe out any vestiges of apartheid in democratic South Africa.

As in other societies characterised by injustice, oppression and discrimination, resistance against colonialism and apartheid produced rich and varied forms of cultural expression in South Africa. Struggle songs, in this country and elsewhere, have constituted powerful weapons of protest. Do these still have a place in the post-liberation context?

South Africans’ views are relatively divided on this issue. When asked in the SA Reconciliation Barometer survey earlier this year about approval for the singing of historic songs, even if they appear to go against the values of the Constitution, 43% agreed that this was acceptable, 26% disagreed and 19% were uncertain.

Malema has undoubtedly become the infamous champion of Dubulu iBhunu, but he is not alone in his defence of the preservation and continued use of struggle songs. President Zuma continues to sing historic call to arms Umshini wam, and has maintained that ‘if you erase the songs, you erase the record of history’. In representations to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), then ANC deputy secretary-general Cheryl Carolus argued that the lyrics of  anti-apartheid songs should not be taken literally. She compared these to the Afrikaans lullaby Siembamba, which translates in English as: ‘Siembamba, Mummy’s little child, twist his neck, chuck him in the ditch, stomp on his head then he’s dead.’

However, as with the general public, the acceptance of these historic songs has not been universal among all ANC members. While Carolus defended song texts before the TRC, former ANC chairperson Mosiuoa ‘Terror’ Lekota called for the development of new anthems which would endorse and celebrate democracy, and explore the challenges of the new era. At the time, Lekota’s proposals were drowned out amid a dramatic leadership and succession race within the party. However, the building and consolidating of South Africa’s democratic order is a multi-dimensional process. It should also be an inclusive one. These suggestions, therefore, perhaps warrant further consideration.

The richness of South African struggle culture should certainly not be abandoned wholesale. Indeed, efforts to suppress ‘struggle culture’ risk eliciting the same kind of resistance cultivated under apartheid – and indeed giving old texts new life. And some of these, like Dubulu iBhunu and Siembamba, may be inappropriate or inconsistent with the values of our society today.

A positive first step may be to once again revive some of the many more unifying struggle songs used historically, ones thatnhave maintained currency throughout our democratic transition. Popular verses within the Black Consciousness Movement, for example, emphasised civic responsibility: ‘Freedom isn’t free, freedom isn’t free, you got to pay the price, you’ve got to sacrifice, and each generation must learn it anew, that freedom isn’t handed down to you.’ The difficulty in this approach, however, remains the questions of who becomes the arbiter of what is appropriate and what is not, and whether this can be resolved without continual court bids.

Further, it is time that those who fought so bravely for democracy to take the lead in creating new forms of cultural expression, with individual and collective efforts in this regard fundamentally oriented towards, and consistent with, the values of the Constitution.

This process is also not an easy one. Superficially, and to cynics, it might appear that the development of texts to inspire unity and mutual understanding would be more difficult than writing anti-apartheid songs, when a common enemy and a shared goal were so apparent. This should not deter us from taking up the challenge.

Struggle songs like Dubulu iBhunu cannot be erased from our collective memory, and merit preservation for their role in mobilising the people against injustice and discrimination. Yet as such, they may now be best preserved in South Africa’s many sites of memory and history, and not sung publicly.

Cecyl Esau is leader of the IJR’s oral history project.

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