Griffiths Motsieloa and Company - Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika / Umhlaba Wase Afrika



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.

1930 cSep
Nkosi Sikelel ‘iAfrika
Recorded in London
Singer, GE 13, matrix EG 640
(From the CD compilation, Opika Penda. Many thanks to Jonathan Ward of Excavated Shellac for sending me the images of the record.)

Roughly 14 months after the visit by the Columbia recording unit to Johannesburg, their principle competitor in the UK, Gramophone Company, through a local agent Mackay Brothers,70 signed a contract with Reuben T. Caluza, and invited him to make a series of recordings at their studios in Hayes, London. The 150 odd tracks recorded between September 4th and October 7th 1930 became a landmark series and set Caluza up to become, by some accounts, one of South Africa’s first “recording stars”.

Not to be outdone, a fledgling company based in Johannesburg, which had been marketing imported records since 1926, decided to also enter the recording business. It’s founder Eric Gallo sent Griffiths Motsieloa along with a number of Afrikaans performers (Pieter Burger, Jan van Dyl)71 to England to cut some tracks. At that time there were no recording or pressing facilities in South Africa and so all masters had to be made in Europe or the USA, then manufactured in bulk and shipped back by boat.

At that time commercial air-flight was not an option and all travel was done by ship. Veit Erlmann in his African Stars has a humorous account of Motsieloa arriving in London ten days before Caluza, only to find that he had left his music behind in South Africa. It was up to his wife, Emily Motsieloa, to then have them posted to him in the UK.72

Gallo's first masters were recorded in London at Metropole Industries Limited73 in 1930 and 1931 and issued on the company's new Singer label. The matrix numbers of these early recordings generally have the prefix EG (for Eric Gallo). Some of the pressings from the London period do not have the EG prefix making them difficult to differentiate from early Johannesburg matrix numbers, which also had no prefix.74 Afrikaans recordings were issued with a green and gold label and an EG coupling number prefix while "Bantu" recordings (the term used by Gallo for recordings in isiZulu, isiXhosa, Sesotho, and so on) were issued with a black and gold label and a GE catalogue number prefix (as seen in the example above.)

Along with three South African students living in the UK, Samuel Putsoane, Conference Setlogelo and Ignatius Monare,75 Motsieloa cut over 40 tracks for Gallo at Metropole in 1930 making up the first 22 discs in the company’s so-called “Bantu” catalogue (GE 1 - 22). One of these tracks included Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika (GE 13) with the four singers accompanied by piano. Motsieloa returned to the UK in early 1931 to record additional material for Gallo, and tracks from both sessions can be heard on the excellent CD compilation that accompanies Christopher Ballantine’s book Marabi Nights, recently reissued in 2012. Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika was also recently reissued on an equally good four CD set, Opika Pende, compiled by Jonathan Ward.76

Griffiths Motsieloa was born in Basutholand (now Lesotho) in 1896. He travelled widely and studied elocution at Trinity College of Music in London after obtaining a teaching qualification at Lovedale College in the Eastern Cape. In 1929 he married Emily Makanana, a pianist and leader of an all-women group the Dangerous Blues.77 Together they would perform in his vaudeville troupe the Darktown Strutters before it was succeeded by the Pitch Black Follies in 1936.78

Motsieloa was subsequently hired by Gallo as a “talent-scout” becoming South Africa’s first black record producer. This opportunity allowed for a steady income, so much so, that in 1932 he quit teaching to concentrate on a full-time stage career. While at Gallo he was responsible for bringing in another historic performer, Solomon Linda and his Original Evening Birds, who recorded the iconic Mbube in 1939.


recorded 1930-09c
issued 1930c
Singer (Bantu)
made in UK
published by S.G. Co.
GE 13
matrix EG 640
matrix EG 682
78 rpm
first issue
source: Jonathan Ward, Excavated Shellac



1.1Nkosi Sikelela i Afrika

(Enoch Sontonga)

2.2Umhlaba Wase Afrika







Many thanks to Jonathan Ward of Excavated Shellac for sending me the images of the record.

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. An extract from the essay can be viewed in the liner notes section to the left.