"Tortured history of our confusing national anthem" Top 5 Page for this destination Ethnic / Cultural Diversity Tip by CatherineReichardt

  Enoch Sontonga - note his amazing waxed moustache!
by CatherineReichardt

The selection and performance of national anthems must be one of the most emotive of cultural issues.

To my mind, national anthems are meant to be rousing and inspirational pieces of music that reflect a nation's sense of self image: however, it's all too easy for them to descend into the realms of worthy-but-dreary dirges burdened with politically correct lyrics. And when you're dealing with a country such as ours which has experienced such political turbulence and transition in recent years, you very quickly get onto really tricky ground.

Prior to the transition to democracy in 1994, the South African anthem was a 'blood and guts', barnstorming call to arms called 'Die Stem van Suid Afrika' ('The Call of South Africa'). In fact, Die Stem was a 'co anthem' between 1936 and 1957 - at which time 'God Save the King/Queen' was also the national anthem, prior to South Africa cutting loose from the Commonwealth and becoming a Republic. Confused??? Well, hold on to your hat, because it's about to get even more confusing ...

The Afrikaans version of 'Die Stem' contained reference to 'groan of ox wagon' and mention of being 'dedicated and true as Afrikaaners', and was the clarion call of an Afrikaaner nation that felt itself under siege during the apartheid era. It doesn't take much imagination to realise that once South Africa had become a multiracial democracy, 'Die Stem' was clearly an unsuitable national anthem. The salomonic - but somewhat clumsy - solution that South Africa arrived at on in 1996 was to develop a 'hybrid' anthem, comprising a section of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (with verses sung in Xhosa, Zulu and Sotho), followed by two verses from the former anthem, Die Stem, with one each being sung in Afrikaans and English.

The hymn 'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika' ('God Bless Africa') is a gorgeous piece of music, and with the beautiful harmonies that African choirs impart to its performance, it is often regarded as a typical piece of African music. It therefore comes as something of a shock to realise that the melody was written by a Welshman, Joseph Parry, in 1887 and was originally titled' 'Aberystwyth'!

'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika''s lyrics were written by a Methodist missionary, Enoch Sontonga, in 1897, and the hymn was first recorded by the African National Congress (ANC)'s first secretary general, Sol Plaatje in 1923 (more about this fascinating man on my Kimberley page). The ANC formally adopted 'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika' as its anthem in 1925, and since then, it has become almost the 'default' anthem for sub Saharan African countries on achieving independence. Confusingly, at one point in time, it was the national anthem of five different African nations, and is still the anthem of three - Zambia, Tanzania and part of the South African 'hybrid' anthem - Zimbabwe and Namibia having since made other arrangements!

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  • Updated Jul 10, 2012
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