Some have tremblingly called it a gathering tempest of Afrikaner nationalism; others have derisively called it a storm in a teacup.
I am, of course, referring to the hundreds of newspaper column centimetres that have been dedicated to the controversy – or non-controversy? – around the De la Rey song over the past few months.
That the nation’s imagination has been captured by a simple ditty, alluding to the enchanted past of Afrikaner glory and bravery should be indication enough that we, as a nation, are still trying to find our way, to negotiate our way from our various laagers to full nationhood.
Also, the very fact that some have perceived the song to be divisive and an incitement of Afrikaners to wage war against the current regime, is indicative of the paranoia that still pervade this country whenever matters of race, ethnicity and culture are raised.
Interestingly enough, the De la Rey debate, as we’ve come to call it, came just weeks after the controversy around Tony Yengeni and his slaughter of a bull as part of a cleansing ceremony that followed his release from prison.
Again, the letters to the editors of various newspapers around the Tony Yengeni bull indicated that we, as a nation, have been living in blissful ignorance of other people’s cultures and traditions.
Non-Afrikaners spoke angrily about the De la Rey song, that it is a throwback to a past best forgotten, that it should be banned because it incites one section of the South African population against others.
I have listened to the song, personally, and found nothing offensive about it. It’s a good dirty – like any other traditional song that most of us sing in times of uncertainty. In Zulu we do have songs like these: ”kwakukuhle kwaZulu, kubhincwa amabheshu, kulalwa emacansini kukuhle kunjeya, kwathi ngenxa yabamhlophe kwaphela kwathi nya! (ancient KwaZulu was divine; we wore our hide apparel, slept on our simple grass mats, oh so divine; but with the arrival of the white man it all disappeared!)”
Should I, then, be accused of incitement against the white man when I sing this song in my drunken stupor (and I promise you I will sing it at one of the non-racial parties one of these days). No, this song about that enchanted past will not bring that past back, much as having Afrikaner youths – legless with beer – singing about De la Rey will not bring back Afrikaner valour as was espoused by De la Rey. It’s just a song.
Some analysts, like Rapport editor Tim du Plessis, have said that the De la Rey song is symbolic and speaks of the psychological dilemma that the Afrikaner finds himself confronted with. The Afrikaner needs a leader, and in the absence of that leader, the Afrikaner composes a song about a gallant leader of the past.
But we are not about to have another De la Rey, and you can take that to the bank. So, let’s allow young Afrikaners to sing their De la Rey; I’m told it goes down well with beer.
To his credit, Pallo Jordan, the Minister of Arts and Culture who’d been asked by one section of the nation to ”intervene”, made a wise decision, citing the Afrikaner community’s right to freedom of expression – as long as the enjoyment of such did not lead to criminality. So, Jordan refused to argue for the banning of the song, as had been hoped by some.
To their credit, the various newspapers have resisted the temptation to pass judgement on either issues. Rather, they have been facilitators of these debates, according various readers, analysts and commentators space to air their views on these seemingly minor, but evidently contentious issues of our time.
And that is the essence of good journalism: break the story, put it in the public domain, and allow the public throw the issue in the air, look at it from all angles and pass their own judgment.
Fred Khumalo is an award-winning journalist and Sunday Times columnist and author of the autobiography Touch my Blood and Bitches’ Brew, a novel .