In a straw poll at The Economist this month, the National Anthem voted as number one in the world is Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika – the South African National Anthem. Taken from a protest hymn by Uitenhage born composer Enoch Sontonga, the lyrics combine Afrikaans, English, Xhosa, Zulu and Sesotho in an act of musical healing for the Rainbow nation.
In their citation The Economist says this about National Anthems; “Good anthems, such as Ukraine’s and Israel’s, contain a tinge of sadness, because nationalism is really about longing, suffering and sacrifice. The best, like South Africa’s Nkosi Sikelil’iAfrika, create their own world entirely.”
Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika – the official anthem of the African National Congress since 1925, is still the national anthem of Tanzania and Zambia. It was also sung in Zimbabwe and Namibia for many years.
Sontonga was born in Uitenhage, Nelson Mandela Bay. He trained as a teacher at the Lovedale Institution and subsequently worked as a teacher and choirmaster at the Methodist Mission school in Nancefield, near Johannesburg for eight years.
The first verse and chorus of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” was composed in 1897 and was originally intended to be a school anthem. Some sources say he wrote the tune the same year, but others contend that the tune was written by Joseph Parry as “Aberystwyth” and that Sontonga merely wrote new words. It was first sung in public in 1899 at the ordination of Reverend Mboweni, who was the first Tsonga Methodist minister. Later the Xhosa poet Samuel Mqhayi wrote a further seven verses.
Sontonga died in April 1905.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is translated from Xhosa into English as Lord Bless Africa.
For decades during the apartheid regime it was considered by many to be the unofficial national anthem of South Africa, representing the suffering of the oppressed masses. Because of its connection to the ANC (African National Congress), the song was banned by the regime during the apartheid era.
In 1994 after the end of apartheid, the new President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, declared that both “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” and the previous national anthem, “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” (“The Call of South Africa”) would be national anthems. While the inclusion of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” celebrated the newfound freedom of many South Africans. The fact that “Die Stem” was also kept as an anthem even after the fall of apartheid, signified to all that the new government under Mandela respected all races and cultures and that an all-inclusive new era was dawning upon South Africa. During this period, the custom was to play “Die Stem” first followed by “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” afterwards during occasions that required the playing of a national anthem.
In 1996, a shortened, combined version of the two anthems was released as the new national anthem of South Africa under the constitution of South Africa and was adopted the following year. The anthem uses several of the official languages of South Africa. The first two lines of the first stanza are sung in Xhosa and the last two in Zulu. The second stanza is sung in Sesotho. The third stanza consists of a section of the former South African national anthem, “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika”, and is sung in Afrikaans. The fourth and final stanza, sung in English, is also based on “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika”.
The legend continues as you listen to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika being played by the Campanile in Port Elizabeth courtesy of Straton: