‘Black boers’ and other revolutionary songs

Shack Dwellers on the March in Pretoria

As the ANC turns into an aggressive kleptocracy - and confronts a ongoing country wide revolt from poor communities - Chris Rodrigues brings some sanity to the debate about their very convenient return to anti-apartheid songs calling for whites to be shot..

by Chris Rodrigues

A hat tip to Mphutlane wa Bofelo for pointing out the subtext to the ANC’s claim to the “shoot the boer!” song: For is it not the case, as wa Bofelo points out, that the attempt to establish a heritage status for the song locates the struggle in the past? And what of the new songs that the poor sing today? Songs like, “amabhunu amnyama asenzela i -worry” — “black boers cause us worries”. Does this current storm in Julius Malema’s teacup not also divert attention from this reality?

Part of the problem resides in the fact that the media tends to follow the blindingly obvious — in this case, the day-to-day pronouncements of those who hold political office. The body politic is, however, capable of other forms. The University of Abahlali baseMjondolo — the University of the Shack Dwellers — is a case in point. University? Shack dwellers? What kind of politics is this that doesn’t seek parliamentary representation? Still, it’s unforgivable that in a country where protests occur with such frequency — there is no ink spilt analysing contemporary idioms.

Anthems, as the Uruguayan essayist Eduardo Galeano says, are often full of “threats, insults, self-praise, homages to war, and the honourable duty to kill and be killed”. The archetypal Marseillaise, for instance, warns that the Revolution “will water the fields with the impure blood” of the invaders. Terrifying stuff but once institutionalised, as Messrs Malema and Motlanthe are arguing, these songs of death and victory are sentimentalised and tamed. They are no longer sung outside the Bastille but inside the Stade de France. In the ANC’s case — we could draw a distinction between singing near Casspirs, and singing in the vicinity of parking lots full of SUVs.

It is, rather, the adaptation of a song, or a new song sung by the excluded that is, as the philosopher Slavoj Zizek argues in First as Tragedy, Then as Farce — the truly revolutionary anthem. Working from the premise that “universal humanity is visible at the edges” — a phrase he borrows from Susan Buck-Morss — he describes how the newly self-liberated black slaves of Haiti faced down the French soldiers sent to crush their republic, by singing the Marseillaise. As Zizek suggests, in that moment, they were asserting:

“In this battle, we are more French than you, the Frenchmen, are — we stand for the innermost consequences of your revolutionary ideology, the very consequences you were not able to assume.”

Could we not say the same with the “black boers cause us worries”? Not only are the poor demonstrating their non-racialism (a black person can also be a boer — a metaphor for an oppressor), they are simultaneously radicalising, through differentiating class from race, what the ANC’s theorists would call the national democratic revolution.

Indeed, it must be somewhat unsettling for the ANC (as in Zizek’s example, the French), who once held a revolutionary initiative, to hear new analyses of the struggle — like the following from Abahlali:

“It is the community organisations and poor people’s movements who are protesting around the country who are true to the spirit of the struggle against apartheid. The politicians who try to herd the people into stadiums to tell them that the politicians in their cavalcades are the true inheritors of the spirit of that struggle have made themselves our enemies.”

All it seems the ANC can say is that we once sang a seditious song and what is now required is — as represented by our regime — obedience to that heroic heritage. Regrettably, a judicial ruling has breathed new life into what is an anachronistic farce for, as Karl Marx might have said, the ANC “only imagines that it believes in itself and asks the world to share in its fantasy”.

Sixteen years of neo-liberal economics dressed up in leftist drag means that a new generation are singing real songs again. These old-new freedom songs are, routinely, met with rubber bullets. It underscores one of wa Bofelo’s points — that people have always known that “it does not only take a white skin to install or perpetuate a system based on unequal allocation of power and inequitable distribution of wealth and resources”.

Here, however, we enter a more thought-provoking terrain and, again, Zizek is useful. He inverts Marx’s old definition of farce by insisting that “contemporary cynicism” as regards ideology (post-modernism, if you like) only imagines “that we do not “really believe” in our ideology [for] in spite of this imaginary distance, we continue to practice it”.

In other words, is not all this attention on Malema, and on a long-in-the-tooth song, not an illusory fight that both the black and white bourgeoisie would prefer to a real one over, dare we say it, communism of some sort? Is it not that the bourgeoisie believe in capitalism so much that they would rather chose a Janus-faced soap-opera (with its empty posturing and hysterical condemnation) than confront the ideological challenge posed by the new anti-capitalist movements? Is it not the case that a clown prince is (even to the SACP) preferable to a real communist?

A few years ago, the Financial Mail, wrote something particularly telling in regard to the then president-in-waiting. It was in the edition entitled, “Be Afraid”. “It’s not the corruption and rape charges that investors and SA business think about when they think of Zuma,” said feature writer Carol Patton, “it’s the simple fact that he has a far more radical support base than Mbeki”.

That someone could be radical — let alone a class for itself — is the spectre haunting South Africa’s rainbow elites. The “shoot the boer!” song represents then, in a Freudian sense, only a symptomatic return of this repressed fear.

“But what about farm attacks/killings”, someone could ask? Are these not, as AfriForum and the Democratic Alliance assert, a literal enactment of that song?

This question also masks its ideology. We should first ask what a farm attack/killing is? And once both phrases also include the attack/killing of farm workers by farm owners, we should ask what motivates farm owners to attack/kill farm workers? The answer to that question will, no doubt, extend the initial inquiry well beyond the three words of a song.

There is, of course, a more obscure question — one that proves that the blind are leading the blind — and it’s whether the murder of an abusive white supremacist, like Eugene Terre’Blanche, is attributable to others’ “hate speech”?

Let’s stop changing the topic. South Africa has been dubbed “the protest capital of the world”. The recent Kennedy Road attacks, which left two dead and Abahlali activists hiding in safe houses, are harbingers of an intensifying class struggle. As one of its members said: “The ANC regards [Abahlali] — not the other official political parties — as their true opposition, because we are closer to the pain on the ground.”

Posted By

red jack
Apr 7 2010 10:00


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Apr 8 2010 05:16

This quote is pertinent in the context of the above (some of it refers to music in the South African movement of the 70s and 80s) - it's from a text I wrote with someone else a few years back, which is no longer on the internet:


The Wobblies, The Big Rock Candy Mountains And Social Struggles

The Industrial Workers of the World, commonly known as the Wobblies, were an industrial union set up in 1905 by a group of workers and activists. Their intentions were to form a revolutionary organisation to gather together those many relatively unskilled workers who were ignored by the elitist craft unions of the day. The organisation was to be a weapon of the daily class struggle, but with an ultimate goal of the abolition of capitalism and the creation of a classless society. The Wobblies had two main wings; the northern factory-based workforce and the larger western migrant, casualised hobo-ing harvest and lumberjack workers.

“She say ‘Will you work for Jesus?’

I say ‘How much Jesus pay?’

She say ‘Jesus don’t pay nothing.’

I say ‘I won’t work today.’”

Hobo to Salvation Army girl in‘The Swede from South Dakota’.

The migrant workers evolved a culture of song, storytelling and poetry that was tailored to its social function. As one example; Wobblies were regular soap-box street speakers but they often had to compete to be heard with Salvation Army bands. So songs were often written to the tune of familiar hymns – when the band began playing the Wobblies would sing along with their subversive lyrics and attempt to drown out the Sally Army choir. (This technique of reclaiming tunes is an early form of what the situationists were later to call detournement; taking a conservative cultural form and altering the content by using it as a vehicle for subversive expression. The situationists used comic strips, others have used advertising billboards etc.In the late 1960s it was fairly common to hear demonstrators singing, "The hills are alive with the sound of ...SMASH THE BOURGEOISIE" or "She wheels her wheelbarrow through streets broad and narrow singing ...SMASH THE BOURGEOISIE", a corny slogan but quite funny in the context of the songs )

Joe Hill and many others wrote songs, poems, and stories that propagated their political outlook, commemorated struggles and fallen comrades and expressed faith and determination in the victorious creation of a new classless society. These were widely distributed by the Wobbly press, leaflets, songbooks and word of mouth, and circulated widely amongst the working class in factories, hobo camps and harvest fields.

Observers talked of ‘strikes that sang’ – the social function of music was used as an expression of unity and strength. This brings to mind an argument with an arrogant marxist/cultural avant-gardist academic bore. He was sneering at the sight of people playing acoustic folk music at a Reclaim The Streets squat party. He asserted it was backward and conservative and truly radical music was that of the modern avant-garde composers (a good example of how the pretension to being superior takes the form of ideologising one’s personal tastes). It was replied that this confused mere innovation in musical form with actual radical practice. Collective song was an important part of many of the best movements of the past. One could imagine some avant-garde music performance in a concert hall in 1970’s uptown Johannesburg, for example; the bourgeois audience would pride themselves on their cultural radicalism – meanwhile across town in the township of Soweto the mass struggles of blacks would reverberate with their singing of songs of struggle. (As did the US civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. In both cases this was a reflection of the involvement of black churches, children and youth in these struggles. It is not appropriate here to go into the contradictory influences of these churches…) Where was the more radical subversive use and function of music going on? As Steve Biko pointed out – it is not enough to contribute from outside ‘songs for the struggle’; if you are part of the struggle the songs will come of themselves. (This was undoubtably true of those times – today people’s relationship to music and struggle has been so changed by social forces that we can only say that it might be a sign of the depth of radicality of a future movement if such non-performance orientated collective music-making became a part of it. How many songs came out of the 1984-85 miners strike? A chant of ‘Here we go, here we go…’ – and that was about it...well, there were a few but not nationally known)

‘The Big Rock Candy Mountains’ is one of the best known song to come out of the US hobo/migrant worker culture. Though usually thought of as an innocent sing-a-long children’s ditty (due to Burl Ive’s version), some versions are claimed to be a seduction song used by older men to entice boys to become their travelling sexual partners. But the meaning of the song least known now and most interesting is as a utopian fantasy. As discussed by A. L. Morton(4), it follows in a tradition of utopian song where the world is turned upside down, paradise is made on earth (see his book "The English Utopia", pubd. 1952). Though less profound and more humorous than the much earlier (14th century) “Land of Cockayne” (Cocaine?!) from England that Morton compares it to, The Big Rock Candy Mountains shares a similar class perspective in so far as it sees the unequal scarcity of the necessities of life as something imposed by class power. There the hobo has all his material needs met; he’s surrounded by ‘cigarette trees…lakes of stew…streams of alcohol’ – ‘the cops have wooden legs’ and their ‘dogs have rubber teeth’ and it’s a place where ‘they hung the jerk that invented work in the Big Rock Candy Mountains’.

A DVD "Amandla"*** about the South African struggle from the mid-70s through the 80s says the following about this movement's songs: "There's no initial previous arrangement as to who starts what song. As a song finishes, another one starts one and in that process there's lots of compositions coming up - a new song. And a person might have tried to sing what he's presented with one or two people during the day and as he leads and the other two back him up and then you've got an entirely new song. The song might take 3 minutes or 3 months to compose and no-one knows who wrote it".This DVD also describes how terrified the heavily armed cops were when a massive demonstration was approaching at a fairly good speed chanting some of these songs, that the singing enhanced their fear, despite their enormous superiority of weaponry. The New York Herald Tribune reports from this period (mid-1980s): "A South African company is selling an anti-riot vehicle that plays disco music through a loudspeaker to soothe the nerves of would-be troublemakers...the vehicle also carries a water cannon and tear gas." Sounds almost like a parody of the stark contrast between music as part of a developing community of struggle - non-specialist music, and music as part of the commodity economy.

If history tells us anything, it shows that in every social movement of struggle the radical faction must fight against both its external and internal enemies. The external enemy is the element that united the movement against it and called it into being, the internal one is the force that seeks to dominate and control from within for its own selfish ends. This broadly corresponds to the division between the political and the social struggles. It is the site of any struggle between the conquest of power and the abolition of that hierarchical power. Popular music of the past 100 years has had a unique relationship to social and political struggles. It generally appears to be on the side of rebellion, yet its actual function tends to be as a measure of the actual limits of a social movement (South Africa's a good example: most of the 'names' from the period of subversive music under apartheid are now pro-ANC). To the extent that the audience is content to remain an audience of fans, it retains a respect for hierarchical relationships that maintain the wider society. The ‘radical’ popular musician represents his constituency of fans every bit as much as the politician who would like to regain this constituency. This is why rock/pop/rap stars are often happy to be enlisted by politicians to “deliver the youth vote” to them.

(from "Some Musical Notes", on the former 'Endangered Phoenix' site.)