THE SOUTH AFRICAN NATIONAL ANTHEM: A HISTORY ON RECORD (extract)
By Siemon Allen
This text is extracted from an article on the early recordings of the South African National Anthem. The full version can be viewed at the Flaint blog.
“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” in isiXhosa and isiZulu
Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw' uphondo lwayo,
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.
Lord bless Africa
May her glory be lifted high
Hear our petitions
Lord bless us, your children10
The first stanza of the original lyrics to the hymn, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, were written in isiXhosa by Enoch Mankayi Sontonga in 1897 at Nancefield (Klipspruit), seventeen kilometers west of Johannesburg. Sontonga, a school teacher at a Methodist mission school there, had “a gift for song” according to D.D.T. Jabavu and he avidly composed tunes for his students to use at public events.11
By some accounts Sontonga also composed the music for the hymn later that same year. Though there are notable articles online that suggest the melody is loosely based on a Welsh hymn entitled Aberystwyth written by Joseph Parry probably in 1879. According to these sources the hymn is likely to have travelled to Africa through Welsh missionaries.12
Many reputable websites have repeated this claim including an article by the BBC on a lost hymn by Parry that had been found by the conductor Edward-Rhys Harry.13 But the original source for the claim is a little more elusive. The earliest reference I have found online for the connection is from a Wikipedia entry for Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika which was updated in December 2010.14 (Watch the hymn being performed by the Tredegar Town Band at YouTube and feel free to make some comments below. Other performances can be found at YouTube, which may sway you in either direction.)
Written by hand in Tonic Sol-fa, Sontonga compiled his songs, including Nkosi Sikelel i’Afrika, in an exercise book that he hoped one day to publish, but sadly before doing so he died on April 18th, 1905.15 Mweli Skota, as Veit Erlmann reveals in African Stars, suggested that John Dube, the founder of the Ohlange Institute near Durban in 1901 and also the first President of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912, was “so moved” by the tune that he asked permission for his choir at Ohlange to perform it.16 The choir would eventually popularise the tune while touring Natal and the Transvaal. Likewise friends and other choir teachers borrowed the manuscripts from Sontonga’s widow after his death and eventually the original documents disappeared.17
According to David Coplan Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was first publicly sung in 1899 at the ordination ceremony of the Reverend M. Boweni, who became the first Tsonga clergyman in the Methodist Mission Church.18 On January 8th, 1912 the Ohlange Institute Choir performed the song after the closing prayer at the first meeting of the newly formed SANNC.19 Coplan suggests that Reuben T. Caluza directed the choir on this historical occasion but this might be reexamined in light of Erlmann’s claim that Caluza only joined the staff at Ohlange Institute in 1915 replacing Lingard D. Bopela as choir leader.20
The SANNC officially shortened their name to the ANC or African National Congress in May 1923 and eventually adopted Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika as their official anthem in 192521 replacing Reuben Caluza’s Silusapho Lwase Afrika (aka “Umteto we Land Act”) that had been their first anthem since 1913.22 (Coplan maintains that this all took place in 1925 though Veit Erlmann contradicts this account by suggesting that Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika was adopted by the SANNC in 1919.)
Seven more verses in isiXhosa, penned by poet Samuel E. Mqhayi, were added in 1927 and first published in the form of a pamphlet by the Lovedale Press that same year. The song was also printed in the newspaper, Umteteli wa Bantu on June 11th, 192723 and subsequently included in hymnals (1929) and books on poetry. The popularity of the hymn spread throughout Africa and variations of the tune were eventually adopted as national anthems by a number of countries including Tanzania, Zambia, for a time Zimbabwe and Namibia and perhaps somewhat ironically by the Transkei “Bantustan” at its formation in 1963.24
With the adoption of the hymn by the ANC as its official anthem, the song was sung at many official events. But it could also be heard at most gatherings of protest and subsequently became a rallying cry and symbol of resistance. The role of the hymn in this way shifted from a religious to a political context. By many accounts, the song was apparently banned by the apartheid government after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when both the ANC and PAC were outlawed, but I am still searching for more specific documentation of this ban. Ironically, there were examples of the song being tolerated by the apartheid government in the 1960s and this is discussed in more detail below.
This version of Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika was recorded in late 1941 or early 1942 by the Singer Sacred Choir and was probably originally issued on the Gallo's Singer label as GE 951. The highest coupling number I have seen on the Singer label is GE 959. The recording could have been made by Hugh Tracey as the reissue label carries the name of his “African Music Research” unit that was established in 1947 at Gallo Records. Eric Gallo had provided Tracey the financial support for the project, a place to work and agreed to publish a potion of his recordings on 78 rpm disc under the Gallotone label.
What is odd though is that the name of the choir carries the Singer name, the label from a time before Tracey joined the company. It is possible that this recording was one that Tracey found in the Gallo archives and simply reissued under his project name. Another oddity is that this disc GE 951(matrix 1852) is backed by the Xhosa Sacred Singers singing Bawo wetu ose zulweni (matrix 1580); whereas another later reissue GB 951 carries a different track on the reverse side. Interestingly that track, Lalelani Izingelosi, was recorded at the same session as Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika by the Singer Sacred Choir (matrix 1850).
For more information about this record and the anthem, read my full article, The South African National Anthem: a history on record at the Flatint blog. To the left in the liner notes section is an extract from the essay.