Generally national anthems are the most dreary and banal drones, not anything that anyone from another country would even consider to be music, let alone something that might move them in any way… Think of Britain’s awful dreary pean of praise to the House of Windsor – not even about the country – and you will know what I mean.
However, a few countries have taken the trouble to give themselves national anthems that are not only a hymn of praise to their country, but also musically moving and powerful, and the best of these (to my mind) is the South African Anthem, which combines both a great melody (well two actually) and even has words that are not too awful.
Two Anthems In One.
As I mentioned above, the current South African anthem is actually made from two totally separate pieces, one that originated with black Africans, and was the anthem of the resistance to apartheid, the other was for many years the anthem of the white Dutch Settlers, and as part of the approach the South Africans took at the end of apartheid, they decided to simply join the two together and make that their new national anthem – Pleasingly gentle idea.
So, what were these two songs?
The first part of the current South African Anthem is ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ (God bless Africa) which was composed by a Methodist school teacher named Enoch Sontonga in 1897. He intended it to be simply a hymn to be sung in church, but it later became much more famous as a song of resistance to the apartheid policies of the white South African government.
Effectively becoming the alternative South African national anthem and was the song that the ANC sang at all their demonstrations and gatherings,
Here is a very powerful version, sung in Zambia by a whole slew of people who fought against the apartheid regime in South Africa.
See what I mean? That is one seriously powerful and moving piece of music.
The other part of the current national anthem of South Africa is rather less powerful, and to be honest, much more of a ¨classic¨ national anthem.
Called Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The Call of South Africa), this much less moving piece was the national anthem from about 1936 until the end of apartheid in 1994, and is sung in Afrikaans, rather than any of the local languages.
As I say, not really anything special musically, it did its job for all those years, so here it is in all its glory.
And these two became…….
Today’s South African National Anthem.
So, these two songs were put together, the African one first, the Afrikaans one second (I don’t think there was any symbolism in this arrangement), and the whole thing was in the five most widely spoken of South Africa’s eleven official languages – Xhosa (first stanza, first two lines) Zulu (first stanza, last two lines), Sesotho (second stanza), Afrikaans (third stanza), and English (final stanza).
This resulted in the following rather fine national anthem, a deeply moving and musically interesting national song, which obviously seems to work very well for all the tribal groups that make up that country.
As you will see in the following video, this is a song that has absolutely stolen the hearts of all South Africans, regardless of their skin colour.
By the way, notice the change of key between the first half and the second half… very unusual in a national anthem.
As is always the case with such songs, there are many, many versions of it out there, so here are a couple I have found that are, each in their own way, interesting.
Here we have the pompous and official version……
An unfortunate comparison with the dreadful British one….. But the South African one lends itself remarkably well to such an imposing and official setting.
Next we have a very beautiful version sung by a bunch of American students… Hang on, don´t give up while the conductor gives his rather long speech, the singing is superb!
And finally, to demonstrate how well this song has become part of South African life, in the following video, the singers microphone gives up, and the crowd simply take over…