One Anthem, One Country

How Nelson Mandela shaped a national anthem that united South Africans in song.

When Nelson Mandela became the first post-apartheid president of South Africa in 1994, he inherited a nation that was deeply divided. White South Africans were unsure if there was a place for them in the changing country, black South Africans were eager to see their situation improve after decades of oppression, and radicalized factions on both sides threatened civil war. Yet Mandela managed to unite South Africa’s diverse racial and ethnic groups under one democratically elected government. And he did it, in part, through the power of song.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” ~ Nelson Mandela

Mandela knew South Africa would need national symbols that embraced the heritage of all its citizens. It was his idea that the new national anthem should join two songs previously in opposition to one another: “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa), a hymn that symbolized the anti-apartheid movement and “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” (The Call of South Africa), the official anthem of the apartheid regime since 1957.

When he died last December at the age of 95, Mandela had already become a legend, honored not just for liberating South Africans from apartheid, but for championing the cause of reconciliation in apartheid’s aftermath. An important part of that legacy is the role he played in getting an entire country, newly united after decades under a racist regime, to sing together in the languages of all its citizens.

Anthem of Protest

“Nkosi Silkelel’ iAfrika” was originally composed as an 1897 hymn by Enoch Sontonga, a black South African teacher and choirmaster at a Methodist mission school outside of Johannesburg. The choir of the Ohlange Institute, founded by John Dube around the turn of the century as the first educational institute directed by a black South African, helped popularize the hymn as they toured the country. Dube was also the first president of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), founded in 1914 to increase the rights of the black South African population, and his institute’s choir performed “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” at the conclusion of the SANNC’s first meeting.

The SANNC eventually became the African National Congress (ANC), which Nelson Mandela joined and then led. “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” was adopted as the organization’s anthem in 1925. “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,” writes Siemon Allen, an artist who documents South African music and audio history. “The role of the hymn in this way shifted from a religious to a political context.”

The popularity of the hymn spread, first across South Africa and then across the continent. As other African countries won their independence from colonial oppressors, translated variations of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” became national anthems for Tanzania and Zambia, as well as temporary anthems for Zimbabwe and Namibia.

Anthem of Apartheid

“Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” was written by Afrikaner C.J. Langenhoven as a poem in 1918 and eventually set to music by the Reverend Marthinus Lourens de Villiers in 1921. “Interestingly, it was actually written as a protest,” Paul Tichmann, a curator at Iziko Museums of South Africa in Cape Town told Public Radio International (PRI). Langenhoven wrote in Afrikaans, the unofficial language spoken by South African settlers of Dutch descent, as opposed to the official languages of English or Dutch, and his words glorified the deep connection between those settlers and the South African landscape. The song was popular among Afrikaners who opposed British rule in the early 20th century. 

For a time, Afrikaners and the pro-British, English-speaking population of South Africa compromised by honoring two anthems simultaneously: “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” sung together with “God Save the Queen.” But as the Afrikaner National Party came to power in 1948, South Africa moved towards leaving the British Commonwealth and becoming a republic. The South African parliament unanimously accepted “Die Stem” as the sole national anthem in 1957.

After taking control of the country in 1948, the National Party also officially embraced apartheid, and the all-white Parliament rapidly passed laws that legalized and institutionalized segregation. For black South Africans, “Die Stem” became a hated symbol of the apartheid regime. The lyrics celebrated the Afrikaners’ conquest of their “Fatherland” and spoke of fighting and dying for property originally seized from Zulus and other native ethnic groups. “It was perceived as the anthem of the oppressor,” says Tichmann.

Written in Afrikaans, “Die Stem” also became associated with the ways the apartheid regime used language to control black South Africans. “There were many conflicts during apartheid that centered around language,” says Mollie Stone, director of world music for the Chicago Children’s Choir and an expert on South African choral music. “The idea of having language used as a tool against you is a really powerful thing.” One example is the Soweto Uprising, which began with high school students protesting a decree forcing all black schools to use Afrikaans as a language of instruction. “It was a means of keeping blacks without access to education,” Stone explains. As students took to the streets, dancing and singing protest songs, the police opened fire, killing hundreds during the demonstrations.

Mandela’s idea to combine both “Nkosi Sikilel’ iAfrika” and “Die Stem” into a new anthem of harmony was a controversial one, even within his own party. “In fact, the entirety of the ANC’s national executive committee initially pushed to scrap ‘Die Stem’ and replace it with ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,’” wrote John Carlin, a journalist who covered post-apartheid South Africa. “Mandela won the argument by doing what defined his leadership: reconciling generosity with pragmatism, finding common ground between humanity’s higher values and the politician’s aspiration to power.” 

More than 200 potential anthems were proposed to the multi-party Commission on National Symbols, but in the end, the Commission recommended the combined anthem. When the songs were played one after another for the first time at Mandela’s 1994 inauguration, it was an important moment for the new president. “The day was symbolized for me by the playing of our two national anthems, and the vision of whites singing ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ and blacks singing ‘Die Stem’, the old anthem of the Republic,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography. “Although that day neither group knew the lyrics of the anthem they once despised, they would soon know the words by heart.”

“The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come,” he told his fellow countrymen in his inauguration address. “We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world.”

Learning to Sing Together

While symbolically important, simply juxtaposing the two songs as a new anthem had a major problem: it took more than five minutes to sing both together from beginning to end. A special Anthem Committee appointed by Minister of Arts, Culture, Science, and Technology Ben Ngubane was charged with producing a shortened version, which also dropped the lyrics in “Die Stem” related to colonial conquest. The final version, which Mandela officially adopted as the national anthem in October 2007, includes sections in the five most commonly spoken of South Africa’s 11 official languages. Verses in native languages Xhosa, Zulu, and Sesotho are followed by a section in Afrikaans drawn from “Die Stem,” and finally an English verse calling for national unity:

Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom
In South Africa our land.

During a five-week tour to South Africa in 1996 with the Chicago Children’s Choir, Mollie Stone witnessed the process of South Africans learning to sing their new anthem. “It was like a pact people made: I will sing in your language and you will sing in mine, and we will be part of one country together,” she says.

Stone remembers white South Africans looking nervous as they tried hard to master the different pronunciations of the native South African languages - something that Madam and Eve, a popular South African comic strip about a white “madam” and her black maid, also made fun of at the time. “For some of them it was the first time that they had ever sung in black languages or even spoken in them…It was an act of saying ‘we now value you, we understand, we respect that this is your country too,’” she says. Even more powerful was “watching black South Africans be willing to sing ‘Die Stem’ instead of having the reaction ‘I will never sing this song. This song was used to oppress my people; this language was used to oppress my people.’”

A Call for Reconciliation

In her research, Stone analyses five ways that South African people have consistently used choral music throughout their history: to educate or spread information, to mobilize people to protest, to comfort and support, to preserve cultural identity, and to raise resources to support the community. She believes that you can look at the current South African national anthem through several of these lenses as well.

“You’re spreading the information that all of these languages are valid, all of these people are valid,” she says. “They are all part of this one nation.” By singing these formerly divisive anthems in a new united form, “you are protesting the way things used to be.” And the song provides comfort and support by affirming that all the different ethnic groups represented in its lyrics and languages belong in a democratic South Africa.

Preserving cultural traditions is particularly key to the anthem’s power. For black South Africans, “despite all the suffering, you’re still able to keep singing your own music,” says Stone. “By being connected to the past you’re forming an alliance with people who have survived the past struggles and overcome them.” The inclusion of “Die Stem” reassured Afrikaners afraid they would be punished for the injustices of the past that their heritage would also be honored.

Of course, an anthem that includes so many languages poses its own unique challenges. As South African comedian Trevor Noah says in his stand-up act, “We’re the only country in the world where 99 percent of the population doesn’t know what the anthem means.” Concerned that many South Africans wouldn’t be able to sing along as their country prepared to host the 2010 World Cup, a government-sponsored marketing campaign provided pronunciation guides and urged “Let’s learn the anthem and sing it loud.” But that’s beginning to change as a new generation grows up singing the anthem every day in school. “I think it really combines the nation—combines its languages into one,” Palo, an eighth-grader living in a Cape Town township recently told a PRI reporter. “It makes it feel whole.”

Stone sees a parallel between the South African anthem’s power to unite its people and the way South African choral music has always been able to synthesize disparate traditions like European hymns and native polyphonic vocal styles. “South African music is in itself a form of reconciliation,” she says. “It’s a reconciliation that you are here on this earth with these other people and you’re not leaving. What better way is there to deal with that than through music?”

The Bloemfontein Children Choir sings the South African National Anthem:

Liza W. Beth is editor of The Voice and director of communications at Chorus America.

This article was adapted from The Voice, Spring 2014, a special issue devoted to community engagement.