Among friends and fans at his boozy 29th birthday party in March 2010, the South African youth leader Julius Malema cocked his right thumb, pointed his finger like a pistol and chanted "Dubulu iBhunu" (shoot the Boer). The crowd sang along merrily.
Malema sang Dubulu iBhunu again a few days later at a rally at the University of Johannesburg, but this time it was aired on television and translated into Afrikaans, in which 'Boer' originally meant 'farmer' and is now a derogatory term for Afrikaner. Hundreds of agitated whites filed formal protests and a judge ordered Malema to stop singing Dubulu iBhunu until the matter could be decided in court. He went on anyway, saying he was only preserving an old anthem from the anti-apartheid struggle--a piece of cultural heritage not to be taken literally. He was singing about the Afrikaner-designed apartheid system, he said, not encouraging his listeners to shoot people.
A hailstorm of debate followed in South Africa, especially on the Internet. Whites especially feared that the song was inspiring black South Africans to kill Afrikaner farmers. In recent years, hundreds of white farm owners and managers had been murdered, mostly in connection with robberies, but often with gruesome violence, and sometimes with their wives or children. But the ruling African National Congress defended Malema, then head of its Youth League, and the song. Party spokesman Jackson Mthembu took responsibility for it on behalf of the ANC, saying it "was sung for many years even before Malema was born," and must be understood in the context of the anti-apartheid struggle. South Africa's minister of arts and culture, Lulu Xingwana, and other politicians joined in defying the judge by chanting the song on the 31st anniversary of an anti-apartheid fighter's hanging.
The controversy was still raging months later, in February 2011, when U2's Bono went on tour in South Africa. Asked about Dubulu iBhunu, he compared it to Irish Republican Army songs he had sung with his uncles as a child. "It's about where and when you sing those songs," Bono said. Indeed, speech and song can be powerful catalysts for human action of all kinds, but their meaning and impact depend tremendously on context and on who's speaking and listening.
Afriforum, an Afrikaner civil rights group, took Malema to court over his song, and in September 2011, Judge Collin Lamont banned it under South African law prohibiting speech that demonstrates a clear intention to be hurtful, to incite harm, or to promote hatred. Minutes after the judge finished reading his thoughtful, hour-long verdict, a knot of Malema's young supporters belted out Dubulu iBhunu a few feet away from the courthouse door, just as he had warned they would. The singers had a live audience--a row of police standing rigid in their riot helmets. Neither judge nor police could stop a song.
In his courtroom defense, Malema said the fault lay not with him but with journalists who had made Afrikaners aware of the song by translating its words. He failed to convince the judge, but unwittingly put his finger on a deep change taking place in communications worldwide, which...