JOHANNESBURG — The black man who leads the youth wing of South Africa’s governing party has no right to sing a song some whites find offensive, a judge said Monday.
The judge ruled that while such anthems had their place during apartheid, they constitute hate speech in a society now struggling to redefine relations between the races.
Monday’s ruling comes four months after hearings in the hate speech trial of Julius Malema that were broadcast live on national television. The court case is separate from Malema’s ongoing African National Congress disciplinary hearings, which also have drawn wide attention in South Africa.
While Monday’s judgment could be seen as a setback for the embattled Malema, the lightning-rod figure might use it to rally support from South Africans who see “Shoot the Boer” as part of the heritage of the anti-apartheid movement. “Boer” means farmer in the language of South Africa’s Dutch descendants known as Afrikaners.
After news of the verdict reached ANC supporters gathered outside the downtown Johannesburg courthouse, crowds began singing the song in defiance of the judge’s ruling. Under the ruling, criminal cases can now be brought against those who sing the song or quote its lyrics.
Malema, who was not in court Monday but testified at length during trial hearings earlier this year, had argued the song was not a literal threat against whites. Malema and the ANC said it was a symbolic call to fight oppression, both under apartheid and 17 years after the end of white rule in a society where the black majority largely remains poor.
Malema, 30, has forced South Africa to confront its racial divide, insisted on trying to set his party’s political and economic agenda, and claimed to represent the country’s restive, poor, black majority. The disciplinary hearings, which could lead to Malema’s suspension or expulsion from the party, focus on accusations he is undermining President Jacob Zuma.
Judge Colin Lamont went further than AfriForum, the white rights group that brought the hate speech suit, had demanded, saying that all South Africans, not only Malema, should refrain from singing “Shoot the Boer.”
AfriForum chief executive Kallie Kriel said at court Monday his group respected the heritage of the anti-apartheid movement, but agreed with Lamont that South Africa now should move on.
“We need to find mutual recognition and respect among communities,” he said, calling the ruling a victory over Malema’s vision of South Africa.
Leslie Mkhabela, Malema’s lawyer, said he was disappointed at the ruling, and did not believe courts were the right forum to debate such social issues.
The judge had made a point similar to Mkhabela’s during the trial, urging the parties to find a mediated settlement. Monday, he said he hoped the attention the trial had drawn, and his decision to allow cameras to broadcast much of it, would help South Africans learn about each other and about histories lived largely in violent isolation from one another.
Lamont spoke for nearly two hours before delivering his ruling, touching on South Africa’s colonial history, the struggle against apartheid and the media attention and public outrage Malema had drawn with his insistence on singing such lyrics as “shoot the boer, they are rapists, robbers.”
Lamont said South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution and the spirit that informed it enjoins all members of society to “embrace all citizens as their brothers” and avoid language designed “to be hurtful, to incite harm and promote hatred.”