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.
“Morena Boloka” in Sesotho
Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa, South Afrika — South Afrika.
Lord we ask You to protect our nation
Intervene and end all conflicts
Protect us, protect our nation
Protect South Africa, South Africa80
To my ear, Morena Boloka, sounds like a completely different tune from that of Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika. And yet by many accounts, the tune is supposed to be the Sotho version or ‘translation’ of the Sontonga’s famous anthem. In his seminal book In Township Tonight David Coplan suggests that “the Sotho verse [was] entirely new and not derived in any way from Sontonga’s or Mqhayi’s Xhosa verses,” and furthermore “was added to promote African Unity by the ANC” and that they “necessarily [changed] the melody due to differences in semantic tone.”81 I interpret Coplan’s account to affirm my suspicion that Morena Boloka might simply be derived from a completely separate and unique song.
Coplan in a separate paper from 2002, also suggests that Morena Boloka was “apparently composed and first published in 1942 by Moses Mphahlele.”82 This attribution is, likewise, mentioned widely on a number of reputable websites, though in my online research I was unable to find the original source for this claim. To my knowledge, the first recording of Morena Boloka predates much of this conjecture by thirteen years and was made by the Wilberforce Institute Singers under the direction of Dr. Francis Herman Gow, around July 1929. The fact that Morena Boloka, like Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, was recorded on such an early occasion in 1929 does suggest that the song was viewed, even then, as important and significant. Unlike Plaatje’s Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, however, there are no earlier examples of the tune in the Zonophone catalogue.
late 1960 or early 1961
Morena Boloka (A-side is Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika)
Gallotone, GB 3219, ABC 20066
Another excellent recording of the two “African National Anthems” together on one disc can be heard on the Gallotone 78 rpm by the Orlando Choristers (Gallotone, GB 3219) probably issued in late 1961 or early 1962. Here Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika is credited to Sontonga while Morena Boloka remains uncredited. The timing of this particular issue is striking, given the events that followed the Sharpeville massacre in March of 1960: that being the States of Emergency, the banning of the ANC and PAC, the house arrest of ANC leader, Albert Luthuli, the attempted assassination of then Prime Minister H.F. Verwoerd, and the apparent suppression of performing these songs.
What began as religious songs had become political — performed at meetings, rallies and gatherings of defiance. It is my understanding that the songs, or at least Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, were banned, however I have yet to find a date for this or an official reference stating such. Perhaps the South African authorities forbade the performance of the songs in political contexts, and maybe it was tolerated in religious or cultural contexts. Certainly it is ironic that Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, was adopted in 1963 as a national anthem by the newly formed legislative assembly of the Transkei “Bantustan”, with full support of the South African government.
Strangely, a footnote in the book The Black Homelands of South Africa mentions that Morena Boloka was sung as an “indigenous anthem” at the conclusion of the legislative assembly in the former “homeland” of Bophuthatswana. The note goes on to say that the “hymn is generally recognized as something akin to a Southern Sotho national anthem, which emphasizes Sotho identity, and, unlike Nkosi Sikelel, has no all-African referent.”98 This does strike me as rather odd given that the official anthem of that state was Lefatshe la Borrarona in Setswana.99
Certainly if the songs were banned by the South African Government, and I am not sure if it is clear that they were, then this oddly translated and unintentionally revealing bilingual statement from the official, government-issued Bantu Education Journal of 1969 shows an incredible example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is up to:
“ASSEBLIEF sprekers, wees die amptelike tale genadig!
Ten slotte vra one: sing aan die end net een volkslied; sing “Morena Boloka Seshaba sa geso” OR “Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika”. Om altwee te sing is ongemotiveerd en dit rek net die program uit.
Speakers, PLEASE, have mercy upon the official languages!
In conclusion we ask: At the the end, do sing only one national anthem. Either sing “Morena Boloka Seshaba sa geso” OR “Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika”, for to sing both is uncalled-for and draws out the programme unnecessarily.”100
It is not clear to me when the practice of singing Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika followed by Morena Boloka began. Certainly both songs were sung after various official ceremonies and proceedings for example a 1959 commemorative booklet documenting the “Final Ceremony” at the University College of Fort Hare includes this description: “After the singing of Gaudeamus Igitur and Amici usque as Aras and a scripture reading and prayer by the Reverend E.L Cragg, addresses were delivered. The Assembly closed with the pronouncement of the Benediction by Archdeacon H.P. Rolfe and the singing of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and Morena Boloka - two National Anthems of the Bantu Peoples”101
The practice of singing one anthem after the other is without a doubt a precursor to the current anthem of South Africa where the first stanza is taken from Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika and the second from Morena Boloka.
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.