Music, heritage, and a debased politics - Politicsweb

Music is an immutable part of the human experience. Song and rhythm have captured our joys and heartaches, celebrated our achievements, mourned our failings and expressed our connection with the divine. Music has also been used to stir our feelings, and to rouse us to action: the beating of a drum to signal the march to war, the sounding of a trumpet for a cavalry charge, the anthem of a country or the melodies that serve as the soundtracks to history.

Terence Corrigan

Music is an immutable part of the human experience. Song and rhythm have captured our joys and heartaches, celebrated our achievements, mourned our failings and expressed our connection with the divine. Music has also been used to stir our feelings, and to rouse us to action: the beating of a drum to signal the march to war, the sounding of a trumpet for a cavalry charge, the anthem of a country or the melodies that serve as the soundtracks to history.

The Greek philosopher Plato devoted considerable reflection to music and its role in society. In how it imitated human emotions, he felt that it had an ethical function, both for the moral education and the moral corruption of people. In his work The Laws, structured as a conversation on political philosophy among a trio of protagonists, the unnamed Athenian comments on the evolution of music: ‘And then, as time went on, the poets themselves introduced the reign of vulgar and lawless innovation.

They were men of genius, but they had no perception of what is just and lawful in music; raging like Bacchanals and possessed with inordinate delights—mingling lamentations with hymns, and paeans with dithyrambs; imitating the sounds of the flute on the lyre, and making one general confusion; ignorantly affirming that music has no truth, and, whether good or bad, can only be judged of rightly by the pleasure of the hearer. And by composing such licentious works, and adding to them words as licentious, they have inspired the multitude with lawlessness and boldness, and made them fancy that they can judge for themselves about melody and song.’

Millennia later, these words resonate along with the chanting by Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters.

‘Shoot the Boer, the Farmer!’ ‘Shoot to kill!’ reverberated through the crowd at FNB Stadium at the EFF’s 10th Anniversary celebrations, led by the self-anointed Commander-in-Chief to the evident delight of the red-clad crowd assembled.

Harsh and threatening lyrics to be sure, they probably attracted more attention than anything else that the party put on to showcase its life so far. For the most part, the public debate has revolved around the legal and quasi-legal question of whether this chant constitutes hate speech or incitement to violence, and whether this should be permissible.

I have expressed myself on this several times: I have no sympathy with the sentiments contained in these words, but on principle, I am averse to prohibitions. In fact, I am sceptical about the notion that hate crimes are somehow worse than those perpetrated for some other reason. (I was once asked rhetorically – I’m not making this up – if I wouldn’t rather be beaten blind for the contents of my wallet than because I’m a Catholic. Answer: I’d rather not be beaten up; it is the perpetration of violence rather than its motivation that concerns me.)

What interests me here is something else. This particular song (or chant) has been a divisive feature of South Africa’s politics since the early 1990s, when the late Peter Mokaba popularised it, particularly around the assassination of Chris Hani. From time to time it has been resuscitated, typically from within the ANC – as at Mokaba’s funeral – and latterly by the EFF. It’s been the subject of a number of challenges before the SA Human Rights Commission and the courts.

Throughout all of this, not only have the song’s proponents denied any link to violence – at times denying that it refers to identifiable people at all, and is merely a metaphorical allusion to a ‘system’ – but that it is a valuable cultural artefact. In this reasoning, it is a part of South Africa’s heritage, an invocation of an important period of the country’s history and a reminder of the past from which we come. It something to be cherished, and its rendition is a matter of right and identity.

Heritage is the accumulated endowments of a society; in its cultural expression, heritage are those things – intangible and material – that link us to the past and what previous generations have done to bring us to our present. The languages we speak, the displays in museums, the art, dance and literature, and certainly the songs and music we listen to.

Heritage is important to us all. It nourishes our sense of self and our place in the world. Fostering feelings of pride and belonging, authority structures – think here specifically about governments – are keen to use it as a tool for communal coherence, or what is often described as nation building. ‘United in our Diversity’ as the pat slogan has it.

‘Terrorist music’

I’ve mentioned before in this column that I have a fondness for Celtic – and specifically Irish – music. I’ve always felt it to have a particular soul and passion, and a capacity for storytelling. Ireland, not unlike South Africa, has a tragic history, and a long artistic tradition of rendering it in song. While not always politically sympathetic to the messaging, I was rather fond on the melodies, and I found the reflection of this history moving.  My late father irritably referred to it as my ‘terrorist music’.

Some of it would not be unfamiliar to a South African audience:

High above their shining weapons flew their own beloved green,

‘Death to every foe and traitor! Whistle out the marching tune!

And Hurrah, my boys, for Freedom! ‘Tis the rising of the moon.’
(‘The Rising of the Moon’)

I confess that this appeals to me far more than ‘Shoot the Boer’. The lyrics are more complex and I find them more poetic; the accompanying instrumental arrangement appeals to my emotions in a manner that Plato would recognise. (The song itself is about the 1798 Uprising in Ireland.) But that is an aesthetic judgement, and all of us are free to engage with varied art forms as we see fit. But it’s hard not to see in this an equivalent romanticisation of violence found in our homegrown version.

In that part of the world, it’s been a live political issue too. In 2003, an Ulster Unionist politician, Roy Beggs, complained to the Irish national carrier, Aer Lingus, about a channel on its in-flight entertainment system that featured the music of Derek Warfield. Warfield’s musical repertoire was, Beggs said, ‘blatant promotion of militant, armed republicanism’, and equivalent to playing speeches of Osama bin Laden. Surprisingly, Aer Lingus agreed to remove the offending channel.

Warfield was dismissive of Beggs’s concerns: ‘It has to do with intolerance. People like him don’t like to be reminded of the litany of horror that was part of our history. The fact that he would begrudge the Irish people the only means that they had to commemorate their war dead. We didn’t have the ability in Ireland because of the colonial rule to remember our heroes in monuments of stone. We weren’t allowed to put them up. It was 100 years before the men of 1798 were remembered in stone. But they were always remembered in song.’

Perhaps more eloquent than Malema would phrase it, but one could imagine precisely these sentiments coming from him.

Divisive history

South Africa is not alone in dealing with cumbersome, problematic and divisive history and its commemoration.

So, is ‘Shoot the Boer’ legitimate heritage then, something worthy of celebrating? In other words, does the defence offered for it hold up? Well, yes, to the extent that heritage, as in so much else that makes us human, is subjective and valuable according to the perspective of the beholder.

To appropriate Plato’s words, it is ‘judged of rightly by the pleasure of the hearer’. This is the case – especially the case – where heritage legitimates the present. In the case of the present controversy, the origins of the song and its status as heritage help to legitimate Malema’s toxic mode of political mobilisation.

Incidentally, it doesn’t really help to argue – as some have – that ‘Kill the Boer’ is not a genuine struggle song, but rather a bit of provocative rabble rousing from the transition period. This may be a valid intellectual question, but heritage is heritage because it is recognised as such, even where it based on a fiction. Here too, South Africa is not alone. The ‘Skye Boat Song’, ruminating on Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, was almost certainly the product of 19th century romanticisation of the Scottish Highlands. It has long been presented as an authentic relic of the 1740s – and some old people could even be found who ‘remembered’ it from their childhoods, long before it could plausibly have been written.


But to argue that ‘Shoot the Boer’ is heritage is not to make a case for its use in the here and now. A few years ago, the Irish musician Paul Hewson – better known as Bono, the lead singer of U2 – happened to be in South Africa and was asked about his feelings on the matter. ‘it’s about where and when you sing those songs. There’s a rule for that kind of music,’ he remarked.

He took some criticism for having seemingly defended Malema’s position, but he later clarified, that it was ‘irresponsible and worse than that to use these songs to stir up more hate.’

This all seems to me to be quite correct, though what the ‘rule’ would be is hard to pin down. I’d suggest that it has to do with recognising that however powerfully we may be drawn to our heritage, it is important to remember that it originates in bygone times. This demands that we consider carefully just how it is invoked.

Perhaps if it was used as part of a piece of remembrance art to reflect on the armed struggle, it would have a place. But this is clearly not what Malema and his party were doing.

Moot and obsolete

Perhaps the invocation of violent and militaristic action was justified – or at least comprehensible – when the country lurched about in a low-key civil war. The transition to a constitutional democracy removes that rationale. For a functioning constitutional democracy would render such sentiments moot and obsolete.

Indeed, if a piece of heritage is used for contemporary mobilisation, it rather loses the reified aura of a cultural artifact, and becomes merely another political instrument. One needn’t be sucked into ‘white genocide’ conspiracy theorising to see how ‘Shoot the Boer’ would then take on decidedly sinister connotations.  

For myself, I see in the singing of this song a debased form of politics, whose practitioners have not been able to extricate themselves from the emotional octane of activism and reconcile themselves to the necessary business of making a system of political institutions function – and nor do they particularly care to do so.

Plato feared that corrupted music would ‘[inspire] the multitude with lawlessness and boldness.’ I fear that this is more a description of some of the country’s leaders than its multitudes.

Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.

This article was first published on the Daily Friend.