The History of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

By 21st June 2019 July 22nd, 2019 People
The Ndlovu Youth Choir

As with all national anthems, there exist countless renditions of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, but the recently released version performed by the Ndlovu Youth Choir really does make you beam with pride! For many years though, pride wasn’t an emotion that most people associated with South Africa’s national anthem, a song which told the story of a divided South Africa.

Until 1994 South Africa’s official national anthem was Die Stem van Suid-Afrika, based on the 1918 poem by C. J. Langenhoven. The poem, which was set to music by Reverend Marthinus Lourens de Villiers in 1921, told the story of the Voortrekkers and the Great Trek. Bar the years 1938 to 1957, when God Save the Queen shared the status of co–national anthem, Die Stem was the anthem that was sung at all official events in South Africa. In a parallel world though, there existed a second song that was considered by a large proportion of the population to be South Africa’s unofficial anthem.

Enoch Sontonga
Enoch Sontonga

Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika became a popular church hymn, and in 1905 Ohlange Secondary School, founded by Dr John Langalibalele Dube, added the song to their repertoire. The school choir traveled extensively, increasing the popularity of the hymn and in 1912 the choir sang a rendition of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika at the founding meeting of the South African Native National Congress in Bloemfontein, where Dr Dube was elected as the first President-General of the organisation that would go on to become the African National Congress (ANC). By 1925 the hymn had become the official anthem of the ANC, and was regularly sung as an act of defiance during the apartheid years. Because of its connection with the ANC, the song was banned by the apartheid government.

Initially composed as a hymn in 1897 by choirmaster and clergyman, Enoch Sontonga, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika asks for God’s blessing on the land and all its people. Written in isiXhosa, the melody for the hymn was based on the tune, Aberystwyth, by Welsh composer and musician, Joseph Parry, and in 1927 seven additional stanzas in isiXhoza were added by the poet, Samuel Mqhayi.

Enoch Sontonga Memorial, Braamfontein Cemetery

In 1994 the newly-elected president, Nelson Mandela, announced that both Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and Die Stem van Suid-Afrika would be the national anthems of South Africa. However, singing two anthems proved impractical and in 1996, a shortened, combined version of the two songs was released. This version uses several of the official languages of South Africa, with the first two lines of the first stanza sung in isiXhosa and the last two in isiZulu. The second stanza is sung in Sesotho. The third stanza consists of a verbatim 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 a modified version of the closing lines of Die Stem.

On the 24th September 1996, Heritage Day, the grave of Enoch Sontonga was declared a national monument, with former President Nelson Mandela awarding the Order of Meritorious Service posthumously to Sontonga for his service to South Africa.

P.S. Interestingly South Africa is not the only country that celebrates Sontonga’s hymn. Versions of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika have been adopted as the national anthems of both Tanzania and Zambia.

Images courtesy of www.pianomomsheetmusic.com, www.cnandco.com and www.theheritageportal.co.za

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