This is a piece that I’ve thought over very carefully over a number of weeks. It relates to an issue that I’ve been watching for years and have written and commented on from time to time, and which embodies some of the tragedies of our present national condition. 

It concerns the incendiary chant ‘Kill the Boer’ and how this is manifesting itself. 

Readers of this column (and my other writings) will know that I accord free expression a prominent place in political and social engagement. I am deeply sceptical on principle of the use of state power to abridge this; bans and prohibitions – no matter how dreadful the subject matter – are a blunt instrument that can set damaging precedents.  

I fear too that such restrictions will be applied unevenly, and given the stance taken by the Human Rights Commission, I think this is a valid concern for South Africa: what is perceived (by officialdom) as hatred towards one group, might be nothing more than the rough-and-tumble of robust politicking towards another. When the Prevention and Combatting of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill was being processed, I cautioned some of its advocates that they might be deeply disappointed with its workings, since they hailed from communities that are not recognised, ideologically, as victims. We shall see how that plays out. 

Piece of heritage 

I have also written about the argument that this chant represents a piece of heritage. This is a complicated argument, with perception often being a substitute for reality. But I think that even if South Africa is not alone in lionising this sort of rhetoric on heritage grounds, and even if this is a genuine piece of South Africana, this provides no justification for using such words for contemporary political purposes. 

For years – I recall this as far back as the pre-transition period – the argument has been made that there is a direct link between this chant and actual attacks on farmers. Surprisingly, this even received a sympathetic acknowledgement in a Zapiro cartoon after the murder of Eugene Terreblanche. The image depicted a pair of assailants running from the dead body, while an adjacent radio declares, ‘The ANC insists “Kill the Boer” is a metaphor.’ ‘What’s a metaphor?’ asks one of the attackers. 

That being said, recent events raise this question anew. 

Tim and Amanda Platt are residents on a farm (though not a farming couple themselves) near Pietermaritzburg. By their account, on 17th August, at around 11pm, they were stirred from bed by noises from outside. Going to investigate, they found a number of intruders trying to break in, literally so in fact, using an axe to smash in one of the house’s doors. The Platts were able to phone a neighbour for assistance, and to activate the alarm, and then sought to fend off the intruders who at this point were still unable to gain entry. Undeterred, the latter continued attempting to force their way through the door, while another group attempted to break through a window in the bedroom.  

Amanda attempted to hold this group off, but having cut their way through the window guard, they were able to enter the bedroom, and dealt her a severe blow to the head. She was subsequently stabbed in the groin. The remaining intruders then entered via the window and overpowered Tim. Amanda, although injured, was able to escape the premises and seek help.  

Quick action 

When she returned, the attackers had left, fortunately taking only a number of items and without having inflicted further physical harm. Quick action by the farm watch saw at least some of the suspects apprehended; four men had participated in the actual attack and robbery, while another two waited in a getaway vehicle. 

Particularly sinister was the invocation used by one of the assailants. According to Amanda’s account, during the initial struggle at the doorway: ‘He pulled me so hard that my copper bangle changed shape shouting “KILL THE FARMER! KILL THE BOER!”’ 

Tim and Amanda were injured and traumatised. For those living in the comparative vulnerability of South Africa’s farms and smallholdings, this is the sort of nightmare experience that inhabits the fringes of their lives. That they survived was a blessing.   

For Amanda, the robbery has deeper meaning. The motivations behind the suspects’ actions will hopefully be revealed in their court appearances, but in her view, their words made it clear. ‘This is politically motivated,’ she says. 

I’m not in a position to judge this, though I intend to keep a close eye on it as it unfolds. What I can say is that if her account is accurate, the attackers clearly used the words latterly made ‘popular’ by Julius Malema and his party as a tool of intimidation, accompanying the employment of actual violence. 

The attack suffered by Tim and Amanda suggests that there are indeed those for whom this chant functions as a legitimation for criminal conduct.  

Deeply averse 

I remain deeply averse to legal prohibitions on speech; but equally, in a constitutional democracy it is incumbent on those participating (or aspiring to participate) as political representatives to conduct themselves in a manner conducive to free, peaceful, and respectful political contestation. 

Whatever the emotional resonance or historical origins of this chant, it has no place in today’s environment. Indeed, to argue that it is merely a part of South Africa’s history is incongruous when it is used today – three decades after the transition – for contemporary mobilisation. 

For a society as angry and violent as South Africa’s, this calls for serious introspection. The intersection between violence and politics has long been a serious problem, and remains so, not least in KwaZulu-Natal. It is reckless, indeed destructive of our future to romanticise it. (Note too that when EFF leader Julius Malema led this at a recent rally, he added ‘Shoot to Kill’ for good measure.) This is a dangerous infusion of aggressive emotionalism and incitement into our political culture. 

It seems to me that all South Africans of goodwill – be they from whatever background, and whether in politics, in government, in civil society, in business, in the country’s Section 9 institutions – need to take a visible stand in opposition to this sort of rhetoric. This is not necessarily about endorsing a specific legal view of the matter, but about establishing the normative boundaries of the political activity that a constitutional democracy will tolerate.  

Surely, the egregious invocation and evocation of violence is something that should rightfully be excluded from our politics?   

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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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.