What part of ‘no excuse’ don’t you understand?

2010-04-11 13:29

By Kenneth Walker

‘IT’S an African thing, my ­brother. You just don’t understand.” I have heard this phrase many times over the decades while travelling and living in Africa. Normally, it’s used in response to questions about relatively harmless social customs, such as the segregation of men and women at dinner parties ­after the meal.


Occasionally, however, the phrase is used to justify some behaviour my whitewashed African-American ­upbringing might regard as objectionable. For example, one of the first times I heard the phrase was more than 10 years ago from a Kenyan friend who had allowed his Kikuyu mother to bar his Indian wife from their homestead.


“Why can’t you just put your foot down and tell your mother: This is the woman I have chosen and you just have to accept it?” I asked my friend.


“It’s an African thing, my brother. You just don’t understand.”


In my adopted home of South Africa, President Jacob Zuma and his supporters offer several cases in point. While campaigning for Zuma to lead the ANC, the party’s youth league president, ­Julius Malema, said he was prepared “to die and kill for Zuma”.


“He shouldn’t be taken literally,” his defenders argued. “He doesn’t mean he would actually murder someone.”


“Oh?” I’d ask. “Exactly what does he mean, then?”


“It’s an African thing, my brother. You wouldn’t understand.”


The same defence was raised when Zuma adopted as his mantra a different struggle song – Umshini Wami (Bring me my machine gun). Any questions about why he would adopt such a song, 15 years after his party had overwhelmingly won democratic elections, boiled down to: “It’s an African thing, my brother. You wouldn’t understand.”


Something like this excuse is being wielded by the ANC to defend the ­struggle song Ayesab’ amagwala, which ­includes phrases such as “Kill the ­Boer”, and brands white farmers as cowards, rapists and dogs. Malema has taken to using the song to whip up support at rallies for nationalising South Africa’s mines and banks.


“When we talk about amabhunu, we were not talking about whites, we were talking about the system of ­apartheid,” says ANC secretary­-general Gwede Mantashe when trying to explain why the party was appealing a court decision banning the song as an incitement to violence and a form of hate speech. “It represented the system. The song is not a new invention.


“The biggest problem I have is when journalists interpret dubul’ ibhunu as ‘Kill the Boer, kill the farmer’, which is a vulgarised interpretation of the song. And in my view, that journalist who vulgarised the interpretation is ­inciting conflict.”


All this was perfectly fine until the murder on Easter Saturday of right-wing racist Eugene Terre’Blanche, ­allegedly by two black farm workers in a dispute over wages. Afrikaner activists claim that the struggle song, among other things, has fostered a climate of violence against white farmers.


The murder apparently jolted ANC leaders into realising that the Rainbow Nation’s attraction as a tourist and ­investment destination could be threatened by a spasm of racial violence after Terre’Blanche’s murder. Terre’Blanche supporters initially vowed revenge, before joining in calls for calm. Such troubles might also ­jeopardise the hosting of the soccer World Cup in June.


Terre’Blanche was the leader of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement) a right-wing Afrikaner organisation founded in 1973. He threatened civil war to block the ­incoming black government in the early 90s, and spent three years in prison for beating a black petrol station worker and ­attempting to murder a black security guard in 1996.


While Terre’Blanche was being ­murdered, Malema was demonstrating in Zimbabwe, saying the song indeed may be “an African thing”. Malema ­repeatedly sang the song he is banned from singing, and threatened to bring Mugabe’s land and mine seizure ­policies back home.


When officials use a song to whip up emotions at intense political rallies, it is, by definition, an incitement to ­violence.

The ANC’s leadership seems to have difficulty understanding this.


Not all the criticism of the ANC’s stance on the struggle song is coming from whites. Mosiuoa Lekota, who now heads the breakaway opposition party Cope, bitterly attacked the ANC for its stance on struggle songs.


“If the ruling party continues on this path, then any disaster will be on their heads,” he said. “In Rwanda,” he ­continued, “a million people were slaughtered for nothing else than that they were a ­particular tribe.


“I may be an African, but I feel ­uneasy when I hear these songs, ­because I feel somewhere somebody is encouraging young people to do these things … The government should take action against anybody who says you must kill, even if it is in a song.”


Perhaps it will take more black ­politicians speaking out to remind us that launching genocides with derogatory racial attacks has also been “an African thing that no one else can ­understand”.


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