Why our National Anthem is powerful enough to survive anything, including mumbling whiteys and Rasta refugees


Okay, I admit it. I’m one of those whiteys who, 15 years after the demise of Apartheid, still gets all tongue-tied and mumbly midway through the second verse of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

Specifically, the bit where the voice dips to the baritone register of “matshwenyeho”, before soaring back up to “O se boloke”, like that Jumbo jet flying low and then climbing back into the ether over Ellis Park stadium.

I’m pretty okay with the rest of the Anthem, thanks to repeated chortles and corrections from my children, who know it off by heart and soul, and also thanks to assorted initiatives from groups of good citizens in the private sector.

I carry Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika with me in the Notes app on my iPhone, along with that iBurst video clip with the bouncing ball and the baby-talk phonetics, so I am ready to burst and mumble into song anywhere and anytime.

And whenever I do sing the Anthem or hear it sung, I think how remarkable it is, how unlike any other anthem in the world: a mash-up of opposing ideologies, of warring sentiments and allegiances, brought together and melded into one song of two parts, each of which lends shade and tone and meaning to the other.

It wasn’t meant to be our National Anthem. It was meant to be a compromise solution, an interim measure, designed in the spirit of the times to give us all something to sing along to at football and rugby matches and other grand occasions of State.

But somehow it stuck, and it is now inconceivable to think of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika as anything other than the give-and-take, I-am-because-you-are, we’re-all-in-this-together anthem that it became.

For me, the most remarkable part of the Anthem is the transition at the end of the second verse, where “South Africa” is sung twice, and there is a moment of tension, a heartbeat, a suspension of disbelief, before Nkosi segues into Die Stem Van Suid Afrika.

In that moment, with its sweep to the highest heavens and its dive into the ocean depths, lies the sum total of our recent history, of our hopes and fears, our triumphs and defeats, our suspicions and embraces, our mad ambitions and our celestial achievements, all welled up in the gulf between a prayer for divine blessing and a surging burst of geophysical pride.

How crazy it is, then, that in spite of everything, or maybe because of everything, we can still find common ground in this land we share, this land that as one liberal whitey once said, is lovely beyond any singing of it.


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