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...

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