Longread: how South Africa got its five-language national anthem
Header image © wall paint cape town – Mr Coe.One
As the Rugby World Cup draws to a close, Think Smarter rewinds to the 1995 final in South Africa, one of the most momentous moments of post-apartheid unity. In this extract from Republic or Death, music journalist Alex Marshall looks at the South African national anthem’s messy beginnings, and how it might influence the nation’s future.
South Africa’s anthem is one of the world’s most important songs, let alone anthems – perhaps the only piece of music that has helped reconcile a country with its past, and bring it peace. It’s actually a combination of two anthems: ‘Die Stem van Suid Afrika’, the military march that was South Africa’s anthem during apartheid (a song detested by any black, coloured or Indian person who heard it – the three groups non-whites were split into) and ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’, the African National Congress’s anthem during those same years (a song some whites thought was a war cry against them). But it’s not just the melding of those melodies that makes the anthem special; it’s the five languages it contains, the way the anthem almost forces everyone in South Africa to engage with each other’s cultures in a way they might otherwise not.
On 15 August 1992, South Africa was due to play New Zealand at rugby, which would mark the end of a sixteen-year international sporting embargo against the country. It was a day the white population had been longing for – most Afrikaners loving nothing more than sport and feeling that their national rugby team, the Springboks, epitomised everything about them: strong, unrelenting, unbeatable. Giving the match the go-ahead was a remarkable reconciliatory gesture by the ANC, but they only agreed to it on the understanding that none of apartheid’s symbols would be used. That included ‘Die Stem’. The anthem would not be played, the ANC said; instead there would be a minute’s silence ‘in support of domestic peace’.
Unfortunately, some Springboks fans didn’t take too well to that news. They wrote to newspapers threatening to turn up with ghetto blasters to play the anthem themselves if it were banned, not seeming to realise or care that by doing so they would be pissing on the spirit of reconciliation that had led to apartheid ending without a civil war. Some papers fanned these flames; the editor of Die Burger, the largest Afrikaans newspaper, announced that the ANC didn’t seem to ‘have an inkling of the raw emotions they are touching among whites’. Everyone hoped it was simply bluster, but on the day some people did indeed walk into the stadium carrying bulky ghetto blasters, others clutching the country’s orange, white and blue, soon-to-be-replaced, flag. When the minute’s silence came, the stadium launched into ‘Die Stem’ a cappella. They sang it through once, they sang it through again, and then, apparently to calm everyone down, the music was played over the stadium’s speakers, so everyone got to sing it once more. ‘As much as I can’t stop the ANC from marching or singing what they wish to sing, they must give me the same right,’ said Louis Luyt, the president of the Transvaal Rugby Football Union, and the man who apparently gave the all-clear to hit play. The incident somehow didn’t cause much trouble – perhaps due to the fact there were few non-whites in the stadium to witness it, maybe more because the South African Rugby Football Union rushed to issue an apology, promising it would never happen again.
The climax of the story of South Africa’s anthem should, of course, be the event that is the climax of every story about South Africa: Mandela’s inauguration in 1994 as the country’s first post-apartheid president. It was on that day that the new anthem was unveiled, after all. Well, new anthems, plural, would be a better term – during negotiations over the country’s future, it had been decided to keep playing ‘Die Stem’, but to immediately follow it with both ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ and then its Sesotho-language version, ‘Morena Boloka’, creating the world’s first three-in-one anthem. Mandela was the driving force behind that decision. The rest of the ANC’s leadership had pushed for ‘Die Stem’ to be treated like every other legacy of apartheid, but at a meeting Mandela scolded them: ‘This song that you treat so easily holds the emotions of many people you don’t represent yet. With the stroke of a pen you would take a decision to destroy the very – the only! – basis that we are building upon: reconciliation.’ Mandela got his wish a few weeks later when he became president, getting the chance to stand hand on heart, face serious and taut, through all three songs. Mandela’s happiness with the outcome is seen in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. The playing of the anthems is almost the last thing he mentions in it. ‘The day was symbolised for me by the playing of our anthem,’ he writes. ‘Although neither group knew the lyrics . . . they once despised, they would soon . . . by heart.’
But if that was where the anthem’s story ended, I wouldn’t have chosen to write about it at all, because what was unveiled that day wasn’t an anthem that could really unify anyone – it was an endurance test. The playing of the three songs took five minutes and four seconds. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, joked afterwards that he’d had to remove his hat for so long during them he’d got sunburn. It was clear to anyone impartial watching on TV that the decision was a disaster – not just because of the length of time it took to get through this tripartite anthem, but because of the fact you’d need weeks of rehearsals and language lessons if you were going to even try singing it. If, say, you were an Indian South African from Durban, who only spoke English and Zulu, you suddenly found yourself having to learn twelve lines of Afrikaans and an equal number in Sesotho. If you were a coloured from Cape Town who only spoke Afrikaans and English, you had a similar problem with the Sesotho, and also had to deal with thirteen lines of Xhosa and Zulu. If you were a black from Limpopo in the north who only spoke Venda, well, you’d probably be better off just giving up (an unlikely situation, admittedly).
Renditions soon became farcical, people mumbling their way through the songs, or just entirely ignoring the ones they didn’t know. Mandela initially didn’t seem to think the complaints were justified, and at ANC meetings he used to act like a disappointed father who knew better than his children and would force the anthems to be replayed again and again until everyone joined in. But after a few months even he began to admit it was ‘quite embarrassing to have people standing for such a long time’ and that he was left as much ‘bored’ as inspired. It was then he had his real anthem masterstroke: he decided he wasn’t the man to come up with a solution after all, formed a committee and got them to sort it out.
When I arrived in South Africa, I was expecting to end up producing this book’s optimistic chapter, about a song that inspired a seventy-year freedom struggle, became part of a composite anthem, and is still helping heal this rainbow nation almost twenty years after that anthem was written. The first few meetings I had did actually suggest that picture would arise. I couldn’t get anyone to complain about the song, not even the representatives of Tsonga- and Venda-speakers I spoke to – the only two of South Africa’s eleven official languages not represented in some way in the anthem (Ndebele, Tswana, Swati and the Sotho languages are linked to either Xhosa, Zulu or Sesotho). ‘Take it from me – take it from me! – nobody in Venda feels excluded because our language isn’t in there,’ said Nkhelebeni Phaswana, a linguistics professor and expert in Venda culture, when I asked him if he felt left out. ‘We actually feel more – more! – united with the rest of the country, because everyone across South Africa is now singing the same song.
‘You know Enoch Sontonga’s original song is a hymn for Africa?’ he added. ‘Well, do you think he should have written it in hundreds of languages so that everyone in the continent felt included? Are you mad? What’s important about a song is its message, not the language the message is in. We in Venda sang his song long before the end of apartheid and we’ll keep on doing so for a long time to come.’
Plenty of others agreed just as strongly about the impact of the anthem. Most laughed that they did not know all the words, but they said that didn’t matter. Johan de Villiers, Marthinus de Villiers’s grandson, said he felt the anthem was the greatest ‘conciliatory gesture’ Mandela ever made. ‘The emotional impact of keeping “Die Stem” is larger than anyone realises,’ he said. ‘Just with that, he won over the hearts of so many, many people he might not have done otherwise.’
I questioned him on this: surely whites weren’t that averse to singing ‘Nkosi’ alone? It’s hardly the most controversial song, what with its gently religious lyrics. But he put me straight, giggling his way through a story about when he formed a multiracial choir in the late 1980s. ‘White people would phone our house and shout at me, “What would your grandfather say? He composed ‘Die Stem’!” And I used to say, “He’d be delighted!”’
Edward Griffiths, the man who was in charge of South African rugby during the 1990s and forced the national team to learn ‘Nkosi’ before they hosted the 1995 World Cup (one of the great unifying post-apartheid events – the Springboks fans seeming to have lost some of their Boer nationalism of a few years earlier), said he thought the anthem wasn’t just a success in South Africa but was proving influential abroad. ‘New Zealand appear to have copied it – they now sing a verse of their anthem in Maori before a verse in English,’ he said, ‘and I dare say soon we’ll have an Australian anthem with some lines of an Aboriginal language. It’s been a really positive thing.’
However, after I spent slightly longer in the country, I realised my optimism about the song was somewhat misplaced. People started pointing me in the direction of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the country’s third-largest political party, who have asked for ‘Die Stem’ to be dropped from the anthem unless ‘it can be scientifically confirmed that its inclusion brings social cohesion’. ‘Die Stem’ was ‘a musical . . . commitment to kill and die for the white supremacist state’, its statements on the issue say. ‘If languages were the issue, why couldn’t there have been another Afrikaans song included to create a multilingual anthem?’ Others pointed me towards Steve Hofmeyr, an Afrikaner pop star who still sings ‘Die Stem’ as if he were living in the 1950s and, by doing so, has angered more blacks than you would think possible. I initially dismissed both of them as extremists, but then I started speaking to more people about the anthem – friendly, everyday people you can’t dismiss so easily – and realised just how widespread disappointment with it is.
In Melville, Johannesburg’s trendy middle-class haven, a place filled with signs warning passers-by that armed response units patrol the area, Zethu Mashika, a film composer, told me, ‘I feel so uncomfortable when I get to the part in Afrikaans, it’s like something’s crawling under my skin. We should just sing “Nkosi”, or some completely different song.’
Another day I had a drink with Mondli Makhanya, an ever-laughing, middle-aged newspaper columnist. ‘The anthem’s not the progressive nation-building thing Nelson Mandela believed it was,’ he said. ‘All it’s done is give the Afrikaners something to hold on to, a celebration of them-ness, and you see that every time there’s a rugby game. When they get to the “Die Stem” part it’s like the roof of the stadium blows off. Literally. There’ll be some singing of the “Nkosi” parts, by the young people and the English-speaking whites who did not necessarily identify with “Die Stem” back in the day, but there’s still this hard core and when they get to that part, they let their feelings [be] known.’ He smiled awkwardly as if trying to decide whether to voice the thought that had just come into his head. ‘I can never forgive Mandela for this – and he’s the man who embodies forgiveness!’
Again, and again, from person after person, I heard comments just like those. And it wasn’t just blacks I met who felt uncomfortable with the anthem – I met many whites and coloured people too who agreed with them, who said there were still too many divides in the country and that perhaps it was better to create a new anthem that transcended history rather than acted as a continual reminder of it. Even Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph, the anthem’s composer, who insisted it was uniting many people, said she ‘half agreed’ with complaints about it. ‘It would be nice to have something completely new and ours,’ she said, ‘although don’t ask me who’d compose it.’
The problem with researching an anthem like South Africa’s is you’re always looking for straight answers – either it’s one that did inspire a freedom struggle and still is inspiring people today, or it’s one that desperately needs changing. But after meeting Lolla, I came to the realisation that in South Africa things are just never going to be that simple. It’s a messy country where awkward associations are a part of daily life – but that doesn’t stop it being one of the most enthralling and uplifting places you can visit. It’s the same with the anthem – it’s a messy answer to a messy problem and some people are always going to be happy with it, others always uncomfortable. It can be both one of the world’s great songs and one of the most overhyped at the same time, surely? But deep down I still wanted to come down on the optimistic side, as much because there seems to be so little positivity among anthems today as anything else, which was why I felt grateful every time I met someone who still genuinely believed in the song, and especially when I met Wally Serote, South Africa’s original angry young poet.
In the 1960s, Wally was locked up for nine months in solitary confinement for his work trying to resuscitate the ANC (it had suffered after being banned, with many of its leaders jailed and many young people turning to the more radical, also banned, Pan Africanist Congress). ‘They said I was a terrorist,’ he told me, ‘that I had the intentions of participating in a conflict. And they weren’t wrong, really, because I did. All the training I went through, I felt, was preparing me for that. The ANC had no plans for it, but it would have been very irresponsible of someone to have given me a gun back then because I would have used it.’ After being released from prison, he moved to America to study and – much to the relief of the ANC, I expect – channelled his indignation into poetry, churning out angry, ominous work after angry, ominous work (‘I do not know where I’ve been,’ goes one, ‘but brother, / I know I am coming, / I come like a tide of water’). Within a few years, he was back working for the organisation in exile in Botswana, part of both its arts programmes and its armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), although his strongest memory of this time was learning ‘the principles of non-racialism’ from those around him. ‘I would have been a racist myself if it were not for how the ANC educated me,’ he told me at one point, as if to emphasise just how much anger he had within him at that time.
Unsurprisingly given that background, Wally fully expected ‘Nkosi’ to be South Africa’s only anthem after apartheid. ‘It had inspired us to want freedom in our life, to fight and to unite our people,’ he said. ‘You can never separate it from that context.’ He was somewhat shocked, then, when it wasn’t subsequently given pride of place. He was the ANC’s head of culture at the time and it seems he only reluctantly accepted the decision to keep ‘Die Stem’ too. The way he described it, he only fully realised why the compromise was made when he heard it at Mandela’s inauguration. ‘I was standing there at the Union Buildings next to four, five, six Afrikaner women and when the anthem was sung they wept,’ he said. ‘And I mean wept. Then one of them said, “At least they’ve put our song in there.” I heard that with my own ears. I’m not making it up. And when I saw them weeping I realised that’s how all South Africans feel about these things, how important they are. You can imagine us, how we felt, when “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” and “Morena Boloka” were sung. It was almost the same feeling when we saw the National Defence Force do the fly-past, knowing that at one time these planes were bombing us and now were saluting our president. You realised that these were all symbols of change and how important it is to include everyone in them.’
After he told me that story, Wally started to speak about the euphoria of the moment, but also about how such euphoria is difficult to sustain when you can’t change things like inequality and racism overnight. I expected him to then say, like most of the other black people I’d met, that the anthem had had its time, that you can’t have one created on a wave of euphoria twenty years after its moment. But instead he said this: ‘If you say this anthem was created so that our people could be united, there’s a simple way to gauge if its time has passed or not. If you still have people who can’t sing “Die Stem”, then that is a problem. If you still have people who can’t sing “Morena Boloka”, then that is a problem. If you still have people who can’t sing “Nkosi Sikeleli”, then that is a problem. And that problem can become deeper and create disunity. This song still has the potential to unite the country if everyone commits to it. I’ve committed myself – I sing the whole song – and to do that was a serious effort for me. It was a serious effort to sing “Die Stem”. A serious emotional effort. But that’s what everyone has to work out for themselves: how do you make that leap? A song can help us still. It can be a bridge so that when people are singing they only see South Africans, no matter their colour.’
After leaving South Africa, I thought it’d be Wally’s comments that would stick in my mind longest: honest, realistic, but hopeful. But surprisingly, the words that I kept remembering were those of someone who couldn’t have been more different – someone who I only met for a minute but who I could tell hadn’t tried crossing many bridges himself. I’d been in Cape Town trying to meet the former president F. W. de Klerk to talk about his role in negotiating peace with Mandela, and to see if he had anything to say about the anthem. I failed miserably in that regard, but outside his office I spoke with a member of his security team. ‘Nah, I’m not singing the anthem – that’s their song,’ he said, dismissively. The fact ‘their’ meant ‘blacks’ needed no spelling out. ‘Why should I? It’s got nothing to do with my culture,’ he went on. I thought about reminding him I was a writer and that perhaps he should tone the comments done, but then he said the most hopeful sentence of my entire trip. ‘Of course my kids sing it – sing the whole f**king thing, all the languages. But they’re a different generation.’ And he walked back inside shaking his head, as if his own children were unfathomable.
Extract taken from Republic or Death: Travels in Search of National Anthems by Alex Marshall (Random House Books).
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