Reviving isiZulu as a political weapon

Quick note from Alex:

Update: The BBC has a good summary of Julius Malema’s recent controversies here.

The last few months have seen language choice re-emerge as a hot topic in South African politics. (This is nothing new: the 1976 Soweto Uprising had its roots firmly in the 1974 Afrikaans Medium Decree, for example, which manded 50-50 use of Afrikaans and English in black schools.) The issue has arisen as part of the controversy over ANC Youth League’s leader, Julius Malema, who is increasingly (I’d say worryingly) outspoken on the theme of white imperialism, recently praising Mugabe’s government and land reform programme after a visit to Zimbabwe, expelling a BBC journalist from a press conference for querying him, and attacking the profile of ethnic minorities in government and the economy.

During an ANC Youth League rally at the University of Johannesburg in March 2010, Malema sang the radical isiZulu anti-apartheid song ‘Dubula iBhunu’, translated ‘Shoot the Boer’ or ‘Shoot the White’. The full lyrics in isiZulu and English are here. He continued to sing it at other rallies until the Northern Gauteng High Court banned him from uttering any of the relevant words of the song in English. Since then he has sung it in defiance of the order, saying ‘this is the court ruling of the white men in South Africa but we are not going to obey it’. More obliquely, he has appeared wearing a t-shirt with the word ‘Dubula’ on.

This represents a concerted attempt to reactivate isiZulu as a language of political struggle, as it was through much of the apartheid era, and more generally to make language a hot and divisive topic within South Africa. This is one of several not-so-weak signals that language may still be a useful pressure point for those who wish to emphasise divisions within South Africa, despite the constitution’s official multi-lingualism. Since language use is often such a clear marker of other segmenters like geography or wealth or race, not all of which have faded in their prominence since the early 1990s, it can feasibly be used to signify other sectoral grievances (for example, continued black poverty and white wealth) that have not always been well articulated in South African public life.


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