JOHANNESBURG – Irish pop singer Bono caused a stir in South Africa on Sunday after expressing support for the singing of an anti-apartheid struggle song that includes the lyrics "shoot the farmer".
The song has been at the centre of a politically charged controversy in South Africa, where the firebrand leader of the ruling party's youth league is locked in a legal battle with a white lobby group over whether the song should be banned as hate speech.
The U2 frontman, who is in Johannesburg ahead of a Sunday night concert for the band's 360 Degrees Tour, said in an interview with South Africa's Sunday Times that struggle music like the "shoot the farmer" song has a place.
"I was a kid and I'd sing songs I remember my uncles singing... rebel songs about the early days of the Irish Republican Army," he said, proceeding to sing a song whose lyrics spoke of carrying guns and readying them for action.
"We sang this and it's fair to say it's folk music... as this was the struggle of some people that sang it over some time," he told the newspaper.
But the rocker went on to say such songs shouldn't be sung in the wrong context.
"Would you want to sing that in a certain community? It's pretty dumb," he said.
"It's about where and when you sing those songs. There's a rule for that kind of music."
Talk radio and the Internet burst into discussion Sunday morning of whether the comments amounted to support for Julius Malema, the outspoken leader of the ruling African National Congress's youth league, or for Afriforum, the Afrikaner lobby group seeking to have Malema banned from singing the song at rallies.
"That's hate speech. They don't know our history at all," said one caller to Talk Radio 702.
"He did not condone the singing of 'Shoot the Boer' in public," said a comment on the Times' web site.
Afriforum has taken Malema to court for publicly singing the song, which includes the lyrics "Awudubele (i)bhulu" -- "shoot the boer" in Zulu. "Boer" is itself Afrikaans, the language descended from South Africa's Dutch colonisers, and translates as "farmer".
But Afriforum argued in an affidavit that the song's meaning was much broader.
"The word 'boer', in this context, is a derogatory word referring to farmers, whites and to Afrikaners in particular," it said.
Malema's singing of the song generated heated debate last year in the wake of the murder of Eugene Terre'Blanche, a white separatist leader who was allegedly hacked to death by two black workers on his farm.
Violence on farms is a divisive issue in South Africa, where a series of racially charged rural murders, with both black and white victims, have made headlines since the end of white-minority rule in 1994.
Bono, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his activism on behalf of developing countries, has long been involved in South African politics.
U2 were part of the group Artists United Against Apartheid that raised more than $1 million for the fight against the white-minority regime in the 1980s, releasing a song that called for artists to boycott apartheid South Africa.