South Africa: trying to sing the rainbow; one anthem, five languages

This chapter is, simply, about the man pictured in the player below and his wonderful and inspiring five-language song:

And, er, how not everyone agrees it’s wonderful or inspiring. But enough of that for now!

The anthem didn’t emerge fully formed of course. It started life as three songs: Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the ANC’s anthem; Morena Boloka, its Sesotho-language version; and Die Stem van Suid-Afrika, the anthem of South Africa’s apartheid government.

You can hear all three, one after the other, in this clip from Mandela‘s inauguration (p259):

Nkosi Sikelel’ was written by the man in the blue square below: Enoch Sontonga (unless you want to argue with me and say all he did was write words to the tune of the Welsh hymn Aberystwyth, but I’ll really disagree with you on that, so let’s not bother).

Enoch Sontonga as featured in the trendy Drum magazine in June 1963. It's covered promised 'The story of Nkosi Sikelel'' showing its importance at that time

Enoch Sontonga as featured in the trendy Drum magazine in June 1963. Its cover promised ‘The story of Nkosi Sikelel”, which shows its importance at that time (it could sell magazines!). I’ve put the whole spread up largely so you can enjoy the old-fashioned adverts

Enoch’s the only anthem composer I’ve come across who has a proper monument to him (p250-252 and 254-255). Here is his grave site in Johannesburg, featuring the sort of granite block you normally only get for war memorials.

Enoch Sontonga's memorial in J'burg cemetary. Among the inscription is this quote: "A spark of God's own light, he died too young. Wept for then, honoured now and forever in the voices of this nation sung."

Among the inscriptions is this quote: “A spark of God’s own light, he died too young. Wept for then, honoured now and forever in the voices of this nation sung.”

On the other side of the coin are the men who wrote Die Stem Van Suid-Afrika: Cornelis Langenhoven and ML de Villiers. They also shouldn’t be forgotten and are fascinating characters, but to save this becoming a page of pictures of old white men I suggest you just read about them in pages 255-258 of the book!

There is one white person I would like to put up a photo of though. Below is Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph, the woman who took those three songs and created South Africa’s unified anthem following Mandela’s instructions (p261). There were about a dozen other members of the committee that produced the final version, but without her, I think the anthem would be very different today. You can find some of her other compositions at her website.

Composer Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph - the woman responsible for South Africa's anthem - in her office in Wits University

I can imagine it’s easy to doubt the importance of Nkosi Sikelel’. It’s just an anthem, after all (of several countries – check out Stand and Sing for Zambia, Proud and Free). Saying it’s one of the most important songs ever written is like claiming the Debout Congolaise, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s beautiful call-and-response anthem is.

But to realise Nkosi’s importance, you only have to see how widely it was taken up outside normal ‘anthem’ circles. And not just by Paul Simon or by bruising South African rugby players. Here’s Weeping by Bright Blue, a huge hit in South Africa in 1988, which somehow got past radio censors despite clearly having the melody of Nkosi running through it (just get to 90 seconds in!) and clearly being about the country’s then ruler P W Botha (“I knew a man who lived in fear”).

And here is a kwaito version by the appallingly-named Boom Shaka, which should please any old ’90s music fans who used to get excited by groups like Soul II Soul!

South Africa’s anthem isn’t of course the only one to go in for multiple languages in the same version, with Suriname’s and New Zealand’s being the most obvious, but they’re both appalling, so I’m not putting them up here. Click the links if you must!

Go to chapter 11

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