South Africans sing the national anthem at a World Cup match. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP)

The Evolution South Africa’s National Anthem

Being South African is one of the best things in the world to be. And while Aromat, vuvuzelas and kwaito are incredible symbols of our uniqueness, there are very few things that represent our diversity as flawlessly as our national anthem.

A national anthem (also state anthem, national hymn, national song, etc.) is generally a patriotic musical composition that evokes and eulogizes the history, traditions, and struggles of its people, recognized either by a nation’s government as the official national song, or by convention through use by the people. In the case of South Africa’s national Anthem, it was not always the lingual combination we proudly sing today. There is an evolution to this national anthem we sing, which is but a culmination of a struggle against apartheid.

History

From the late 1940s to the early 1990s, South Africa was governed by a system known as apartheid, a widely-condemned system of institutionalised racial segregation and discrimination that was based on white supremacy and the repression of the black majority for the benefit of the politically and economically dominant Afrikaner minority and other whites. During this period, South Africa’s national anthem was “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika”, also known as “Die Stem”, an Afrikaans language song that chronicled the Voortrekkers and their “Great Trek”. “Die Stem” is a poem written by C. J. Langenhoven in 1918 and was set to music by the Reverend Marthinus Lourens de Villiers in 1921. “Die Stem” (English: “The voice of South Africa”) was the co–national anthem[ with ‘God Save The King’/’God Save The Queen’ between 1938 and 1957, when it became the sole national anthem until 1994. “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” (English: “The Voice of South Africa”) was composed of 8 stanzas (The original 4 in Afrikaans and 4 in English – a translation of the Afrikaans with a few modifications). It was seldom sung in its entirety; usually the first stanza was the most widely known and sung sometimes followed by the last stanza.

Background and inception of “Die Stem”

In May 1918, C.J. Langenhoven wrote an Afrikaans poem called “Die Stem”, for which music was composed by the Reverend Marthinus Lourens de Villiers in 1921. The music composed was actually a second version; the first did not satisfy Langenhoven. It was widely used by the South African Broadcasting Corporation in the 1920s, which played it at the close of daily broadcasts, along with “God Save The King”. It was recorded for the first time in 1926 when its first and third verses were performed by Betty Steyn in England for the Zonophone record label; it was sung publicly for the first time on 31 May 1928 at a raising of the new South African national flag. In 1938, South Africa proclaimed it to be one of the two co-national anthems of the country, along with “God Save the King”.

It was sung in English as well as Afrikaans from 1952,  with both versions having official status, while “God Save the Queen” did not cease to be a co-national anthem until May 1957, when it was dropped from that role. However, it remained the country’s royal anthem until 1961, as it was a Commonwealth realm until that point. The poem originally had only three verses, but the government asked the author to add a fourth verse with a religious theme. The English version is for the most part a faithful translation of the Afrikaans version with a few minor changes.

Die Stem

Uit die blou van onse hemel, uit die diepte van ons see, 
Oor ons ewige gebergtes waar die kranse antwoord gee, 
Deur ons ver-verlate vlaktes met die kreun van ossewa – 
Ruis die stem van ons geliefde, van ons land Suid-Afrika.

Ons sal antwoord op jou roepstem, ons sal offer wat jy vra: 
Ons sal lewe, ons sal sterwe – ons vir jou, Suid-Afrika

In die merg van ons gebeente, in ons hart en siel en gees, 
In ons roem op ons verlede, in ons hoop of wat sal wees, 
In ons wil en werk en wandel, van ons wieg tot aan ons graf – 
Deel geen ander land ons liefde, trek geen ander trou ons af.

Vaderland! ons sal die adel van jou naam met ere dra: 
Waar en trou as Afrikaners – kinders van Suid-Afrika.

In die songloed van ons somer, in ons winternag se kou, 
In die lente van ons liefde, in die lanfer van ons rou, 
By die klink van huweliks-klokkies, by die kluitklap op die kis – 
Streel jou stem ons nooit verniet nie, weet jy waar jou kinders is.

Op jou roep se ons nooit nee nie, se ons altyd, altyd ja: 
Om te lewe, om te sterwe – ja, ons kom Suid-Afrika.

Op U Almag vas vertrouend het ons vadere gebou: 
Skenk ook ons die krag, o Here! om te handhaaf en te hou – 
Dat die erwe van ons vad’re vir ons kinders erwe bly: 
Knegte van die Allerhoogste, teen die hele wereld vry.

Soos ons vadere vertrou het, leer ook ons vertrou, o Heer – 
Met ons land en met ons nasie sal dit wel wees, God regeer.


When apartheid came to an end in the early 1990s, the future of “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” was called into question. It was ultimately retained as the national anthem, though “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, a Xhosa language song that was used by the anti-apartheid movement, was also introduced and adopted as a second national anthem of equal standing. “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” was composed by a Methodist school teacher named Enoch Sontonga in 1897. It was first sung as a church hymn but later became an act of political defiance against the apartheid regime. 

The South African government adopted both songs as dual national anthems in 1994, when they were performed at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration. For the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Morné du Plessis suggested that the Springboks learn all the words of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, and “they did so with great feeling”, according to their instructor Anne Munnik.

The national anthem of South Africa was adopted in 1997 and is a hybrid song combining new English lyrics with extracts of the 19th century hymn “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” and the Afrikaans song “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika”. The committee responsible for this new composition included Anna Bender, Elize Botha, Richard Cock, Dolf Havemann (Secretary), Mzilikazi Khumalo(Chairman), Masizi Kunene, John Lenake, Fatima Meer, Khabi Mngoma, Wally Serote, Johan de Villiers, and Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph.

The South African national anthem is often referred to by its incipit of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika“, however this has never been its official title, which is simply “National anthem of South Africa”.

The words of the first stanza were originally written in Xhosa as a hymn. Seven additional stanzas in Xhoza were later added by the poet, Samuel Mqhayi. A Sesotho version was published by Moses Mphahlele in 1942. Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika was popularised at concerts held in Johannesburg by Reverend JL Dube’s Ohlange Zulu Choir. It became a popular church hymn that was later adopted as an anthem at political meetings. The first stanza is generally sung in Xhosa or Zulu followed by the Sesotho version. Apparently there is no standard version or translations of Nkosi and the words vary from place to place and from occasion to occasion.

National Anthem of South Africa

Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo,
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.
Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa South Afrika – South Afrika.
Uit die blou van onse hemel,
Uit die diepte van ons see,
Oor ons ewige gebergtes,
Waar die kranse antwoord gee,
Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom,
In South Africa our land.

English translation of Xhosa and Zulu version

Lord bless Africa
May her glory be lifted high
Hear our petitions
Lord bless us, your children

English translation of Sesotho version

Lord we ask You to protect our nation
Intervene and end all conflicts
Protect us, protect our nation
Protect South Africa, South Africa

English translation of Afrikaans version

Out of the blue of our heavens
Out of the depths of our seas
Over our everlasting mountains
Where the echoing crags resound

According to an article published by The Economist in 2017, South Africa’s national anthem ranks at the top of the podium due to its “rousing tune” and “musical healing”.  Simply spectacular! So next time you put your fist n your heart, ready to sing the national anthem, remember where it came from and sing it proudly!

References: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

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