Twenty years ago, South Africa finally sung its new national anthem. Just three years after the country was reborn, two pieces of music with roots in different cultures were combined to make an official song for what would become known as “The New South Africa.”
Soon after the first democratic election in 1994 and the inauguration of president Nelson Mandela, the thick blanket of euphoria that had enveloped the country wore thin to expose the rage and anguish of those oppressed by the apartheid government. But Mandela was Mandela and forgave 27 years of imprisonment for the sake of peace. To that end, an interim arrangement in regard to the national anthem was made after he came to power. There would be two national anthems sung one after the other.
The first, “N’kosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa)”, was written in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga, a schoolteacher. Other verses were later added by poet Samuel Mqhayi. It has been used by other African countries as an anthem in the past and had become known as a liberation song during the struggle against white oppression. The second was “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The Voice of South Africa).” Commonly known as just “Die Stem (The Voice),” it had been the anthem since 1957, adapted from a poem written by the beloved and revered Afrikaans poet CJ Langenhoven in 1918.
In 1997, this arrangement came to an end, and parts of the two anthems were combined, with translations incorporated to include five of South Africa’s eleven official languages. It started with Xhosa in the first verse, followed by Zulu, Sesotho and Afrikaans and ending in English. The compromise between the former oppressor and the formerly oppressed had, and still has, obvious caveats. Both of the songs are bursting with very specific traditional connotations that limit its representative powers to the groups that had ownership of it for decades prior.
The anthem as a whole, by nature of being an anthem, does manage to unite South Africans, its inherent divisive nature, rooted in the long history of both the songs, is clear when South Africans gather in their thousands for an international sport event. While an opposing team provides motivation to unite and sport has played a significant role in nation-building, it isn’t burrowed deep enough. Nevertheless, when things go awry in South Africa’s young adult democracy, sport is a trustworthy go-to for a quick fix. This started with the 1995 Rugby World Cup Tournament.
A year after Mandela became president, South Africa played host to the tournament that it had previously been banned from as part of international sanctions against the apartheid government. The team left the field triumphant. Part of this winning memory is thanks to fly-half Joel Stransky’s magnificent boot, clinching the final with a drop kick 30 meters from the goal posts in extra time. What followed is an iconic moment in sport history — Mandela walking onto the field in a Springbok jersey and lifting the cup alongside captain Francois Pienaar. Goosebumps, heart in throat, happiness, relief, disbelief — all at once.
Sport, along with South African entertainment celebrities like Charlize Theron, Lesley-Ann Brandt and Trevor Noah and technology luminaries like Elon Musk, Paul Maritz and Vinny Lingham, has done a lot to patch up the old wounds. But when international games are played and “N’kosi Sikelel i’Afrika (God Bless Africa)” is sung, blood spurts. The first verse makes my heart swell with pride. And then I wait. Because I know what will happen when the fourth verse, the first verse of “Die Stem”, starts. The stadium erupts, the singing is many, many times louder than before. “Uit die blou van onse hemel (from the blue of our heavens)” truly reaches the heavens while many hearts sink.
Love songs tell stories about love in a similar way that anthems tell stories about victories. But does South Africa have a shared victory if some still consider defeating apartheid as a loss? What happens when the country’s most famous Afrikaans popstar rejects the anthem and declares that, for him, “Die Stem” is the true song of the country? And if thousands of his fans agree?
It becomes hard to sing and ask God to bless Africa. Except when there’s rugby to be played. Or Wayde van Niekerk breaks a 17-year-old record held by Michael Johnson in the men’s 400m race to claim Olympic gold. And even then, this one anthem is still two very different songs, speaking to different groups of consciousness with vastly different memories. Twenty years of singing hasn’t changed that.
10 October 2017 marks 20 years since a combined version of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” and “Die Stem van Suid-Africa” became South Africa’s new national anthem following a proclamation in the Government Gazette .