New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 1, 2011
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa >> It seemed like a throwback to the days when a white minority ruled South Africa. Inside a colonial-era courthouse that was once a stage for the political trials of anti-apartheid activists, a white lawyer in robes and frilly bib accused a black leader of being a communist and fomenting hatred of whites.
“Do you know who Vladimir Lenin was?” demanded the lawyer, rekindling memories of the anti-Communist measures that helped crush dissent during apartheid.
In his defense, the black leader in the dock championed his right to lead his supporters in singing a song with the seemingly bloodthirsty line “Shoot the Boer!” — a historical reference widely taken as a threat by Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch settlers and the creators of apartheid.
Of course, that racist system ended 17 years ago with Nelson Mandela’s election. The African National Congress has been the governing party ever since. But the past is not really past here. Race remains a fraught issue, riveting the country in recent weeks as the hate-speech trial of Julius Malema, the leader of the party’s youth wing, was broadcast live on television. Closing arguments are expected within weeks.
The decision will help establish where free speech crosses the line into hate speech in one of Africa’s most democratic countries. The trial itself may also have strengthened Malema’s political allure in a nation where four out of five citizens are black.
He is alternately denounced here as a demagogue and hailed as a future president. Even some senior leaders in the ANC worry that his angry brand of populism could resonate with the country’s millions of dispossessed youths.
The final day of testimony, in a wood-paneled courtroom packed with Malema’s partisans, presented a polarized version of South Africa’s complicated, sensitive and never-ending debate about how to deal with its scarred racial legacy.
“It’s a clash of atavisms,” said Nic Dawes, editor of The Mail & Guardian, who said he switched off his television in frustration. “It’s like those days when you tune into talk radio, and you hear a version of the national conversation dominated by the most unpleasant aspects of white anxiety and the angriest black reactions.”
The imagery was powerful: Roelof du Plessis, an Afrikaner lawyer with a heavy Afrikaans accent, accusing Malema of being a Communist, suggesting that South Africa was heading toward a genocide against whites and seeking to expose Malema for having carried a gun “illegally” as a child during the armed struggle against apartheid (an accusation Malema happily confirmed).
“That seems to be typical of Africa, using children to fight wars,” du Plessis harrumphed.
At the other extreme, Malema, 30, arrived each day at the courthouse in Johannesburg’s bustling downtown surrounded by bodyguards modishly attired in dark suits, red ties and white shirts, assault rifles slung across their chests.
In recent years, he has declared a readiness to kill for Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president; described the leader of the main opposition party, Helen Zille, as a cockroach; and hounded a BBC correspondent out of a news conference, accusing him of “white tendencies.” He has also pushed the African National Congress into a debate on the nationalization of South Africa’s mineral wealth, though party elders warned it could drive away foreign investment.
Some of his rash statements last year prompted his party to order him to attend anger management classes. Nonetheless, party leaders rallied to Malema’s defense in the current case, testifying in support of his assertion that the “Shoot the Boer” refrain was a metaphorical call to defeat apartheid, not a literal incitement to violence.
The debate has played out in newspapers and blogs. Many in the news media and academia who have been harsh critics of Malema’s have nonetheless argued that his singing of the offending song does not justify banning it as a form of hate speech under South Africa’s constitution.
Some also found du Plessis’ cross-examination ridiculous. Pierre de Vos, a law professor at the University of Cape Town, wrote that du Plessis’ line of questioning reminded him of apartheid-era leaders speaking on “the dangers of communism and the evils of ANC ‘terrorism.”’
“I must say, Adv. du Plessis’ performance today is almost enough to make me want to burst out singing: ‘dubul’ibhunu/dubula dubula,’ ” the professor wrote, quoting the Zulu rendition of the “Shoot the Boer” refrain.
But others found the hate speech complaint convincing. It was filed by two groups representing Afrikaners, who contended that the song’s refrain suggested that Afrikaners were “the enemy at least to be shunned and at most to be killed.”
Rhoda Kadalie, a columnist writing in an Afrikaans-language newspaper, said the lyrics were wrong during apartheid years and shocking now, especially in light of the many white farmers who had been murdered since the end of apartheid.
“Justifying these wrongs in the name of apartheid gives carte blanche to yesterday’s liberators to become tomorrow’s oppressors,” she wrote.
Malema, just 13 when Mandela became president, was too young to join the armed struggle against apartheid, but seemed eager to use the trial to bolster his revolutionary street cred.
“I belong to a radical and militant youth organization, and if you’re not militant in the Youth League, you run the risk of being irrelevant,” Malema said on the stand.
He boasted that the ANC has taught him to fire a gun and chant slogans since he was 11. In 1993, he said, when he was 12, he marched into white suburbs armed with a gun after a right-wing white assassinated the charismatic black leader Chris Hani — only to be disappointed when Mandela did not order violent retaliation. Instead, he appealed for discipline and nonviolence.
“We came across white people,” Malema said. “We never shot any one of them. We had all the reasons.”
Du Plessis, advocating for white farmers, opened the door for Malema to make his case for nationalizing the mines and confiscating the land of white farmers without compensation — policies that would constitute a sharp break with the country’s constitution.
After his testimony, Malema told hundreds of his followers who had stood outside for hours that du Plessis “couldn’t hide the racism in his face.” He said the lawyer’s clients were far more worried about the confiscation of their land than about a song’s lyrics.
“We are going to take their land whether they like it or not!” he exclaimed, as the crowd roared.
His supporters then serenaded Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Mandela’s former wife, who had been at Malema’s side throughout his trial. Madikizela-Mandela, who was implicated in the murders and beatings of township youths in the late 1980s, thanked AfriForum, one of the complainants in the case, for bringing Malema’s supporters together “to baptize” him as “the future president of South Africa.”
“This is the leadership that is going to run the very last mile of transformation for this country,” she proclaimed.