One of the most powerful weapons in a South African politician's arsenal may be silenced after a court ruled this week that songs once used to rally support against apartheid could be considered hate speech in the country's new democracy.

Any politician from the ruling African National Congress (ANC) worth his salt knows how to whip up a crowd with an anti-apartheid struggle song, especially President Jacob Zuma whose favourite is a call to arms titled Bring me my Machine Gun.

But Judge Collin Lamont said on Monday that ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema went too far when he sang the decades' old song Shoot the Boer at rallies, arguing the lyrics that called for blacks to gun down white oppressors amounted to hate speech in the new South Africa.

The song's lyrics can be translated as The cowards are scared, shoot the Boer./ The dogs are raping us, shoot the Boer. Boers are descendants of Dutch settlers who colonised large parts of South Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Lamont's decision rekindled old questions about race and raised fresh question about Zuma's leadership, with many saying the matter should have been sorted out within his ANC and not left for a judge to decide.

We view this judgement as an attempt to rewrite the South African history. This ruling flies against the need to accept our past and to preserve our heritage as an organisation and as a people, the ANC said in a statement.

The struggle songs grew alongside the oppression of blacks by whites in South Africa and became more militant after 1950 with the onset of a white-minority apartheid regime designed to dehumanise the black majority.

THE POLITICS OF SINGING

Most South Africans see the songs as part of the social fabric, with one of the most famous, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika or God Bless Africa, being incorporated into the national anthem.

The ANC will appeal the decision, saying if the judgment stands banning a militant struggle song, it will have an effect on free speech. Lamont said the question is about context and whether old lyrics could be used to incite fresh racial tension.

Many of the songs have lyrics about events and people who dominated the political debate decades ago.

While apartheid ended 17 years ago, the songs have remained, with the ANC seeing them as part of history, and some seizing on them as a way to score political points and muster support.

No one says they should erase them from their history books. But actively singing them at political rallies as a means of gaining support is a shame, said Lucy Holborn, a research manager at the South African Institute of Race Relations.

Zuma has roused crowds when he sings what can be translated as: Bring me my machine gun/ Don't hold me back.

Zuma, criticised for ineffectual leadership, has seen his image further eroded over the songs and for not reining in Malema in time to prevent damage to the party that pledged to build a rainbow nation of South Africa's numerous race groups.

Malema has criticised the ANC's long standing policy of non-racialism by calling whites criminals and saying there is no place for them in the ruling party.

Malema's vitriol ... (is) a direct result of Zuma's lack of leadership, The Times wrote in an editorial.