Friday, October 3, 2014

The song of a continent, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica”

When Enoch Sontonga created the first two stanzas of a song for his school choir, even he might not have envisaged a future for the song beyond the walls of the school or the community. However, the message given in the song “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica” (Lord Bless Africa) and the tune has since captivated and motivated the hearts of tens of thousands of Africans in his own country and beyond.

Enoch Mankayi Sontonga was a Xhosa from Eastern Cape and was trained as a teacher. After the training, he started working at Methodist Mission School in Nancefield, near Johannesburg. He was also the choirmaster and was just 24 when he made the first stanzas of the now famous song in his mother tongue, Xhosa. No one can be sure if the tune is exactly his as there are conflicting views. But it is certain that the initial step in the long journey of the song “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica” was taken by Sontonga.

First sung publicly in 1899, the song spread far and wide slowly but surely. As the battle against the white rule was formulating, the song found a new appeal. It was not a message to violent rebellion. On the contrary, it was completely a religious song which found a new definition through the national struggle of the people of Africa. Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography 'A Long Walk To Freedom' describes 'Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica' as "hauntingly beautiful." The song called God to bless his people in Africa. God does not regard a color bar even though humans did. Even though the white rulers suppressed the black people, in the eyes of God, all were to be equal.
South African flag (Wikimedia Commons)

It is true that the song represented the sufferings of the oppressed and the hope for a brighter future. However, its significance grew as a result of the circumstances faced by the Africans. It all came from the simple fact that the song was about asking for blessings for a brighter future. For Africans, a brighter future meant a society where all could live as equals. Therefore the song naturally became a symbol of African liberation.

In 1912, the song was played at the first convention of the South African Native National Congress, which would later become the African National Congress (ANC). In 1925, the ANC would make “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica” its official anthem. It would be sung far and wide in South Africa and also in parts of Africa beyond the borders of that country.

The song appealed to many Africans beyond South Africa, especially at the age when colonialism was declining and Pan-Africanism was growing as an ideology. Therefore, the song became famous in certain countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 1961, Tanganyika chose a Swahili version of the song as its national anthem. Meanwhile three other countries used the song as its national anthem. Zambia used it from 1964 until 1973 when it started using a different song in English to the same tune. Zimbabwe used a Shona and Ndebele version of the song as its national anthem for 14 years after independence, changing it in 1994. Namibia, which was also under the Apartheid rule of South Africa for years, chose the song as its national anthem provisionally when the country gained independence in 1989. In many of these countries the song remains popular. Meanwhile, from 1994, the song has been a part of the national anthem in South Africa.

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