If you take a drive along Enoch Sontonga Road, and pull into the Enoch Sontonga Park, you will find a small monument there to a man named… Enoch Sontonga!
Who was he? He was a musician who wrote Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, the beautiful prayer and hymn that is forever part of the South African national anthem.
It’s actually hard to believe that the apartheid government banned this song, considering it to be far too political. It’s also hard to believe that at one stage it enjoyed prominent status in Tanzania and Zambia, and is the national anthem of both, so far from its South African origins.
It really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense why the old regime banned the song: the words mean ‘God bless Africa.’ And written with four beats in the bar, it has the perfect rhythm for an anthem: it’s a march, albeit a slow one. Many of the world’s national anthems are marches, such as the French and German ones. But then there are the exceptions: both the British and American anthems are waltzes, having three beats in a bar, with God Save The Queen being a slow one, and The Star Spangled Banner being a faster one.
There was, of course, much controversy initially about the use of this hymn for the national anthem and the removal of Die Stem as the old one, in much the same way as there was controversy over the old and new flags, and the use of the Springbok emblem for rugby. But our government is nothing if not inclusive, and true to the ethos of the Freedom Charter, they hatched a plan to splice the two anthems together, to create a new one. Employing the services of Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph, a music professor from Wits, to do the splicing, the new anthem became the official one in 1997.
But who would have thought that a Methodist composer who wrote a song back in 1897, would 100 years later have his music immortalised as a national anthem? The truth, as they say, is sometimes stranger than fiction.