"Nkosi Sikelele" was a black South African resistance song before it became part of South Africa's national anthem.
The following are some of its Xhosa words, with English translation:
Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika
(God Bless Africa)
Maluphakanyisw' uphondo lwayo,
(Raise high Her glory)
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
(Hear our Prayers)
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo
(God bless us, we her children)
Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
(God protect our nation)
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
(End all wars and tribulations)
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
(Protect us, protect our nation)
Setjhaba sa South Afrika - South Afrika.
(Our nation South Africa - South Africa)
Twenty-four-year-old Enoch Sontonga - a Xhosa - wrote this song, for his students, around 1897. From the town of Uitenhage, in the Eastern Cape, Enoch wrote the first verse and chorus in his native language.
A teacher and choirmaster, at the Methodist Mission School in Nancefield, Sontonga wrote many other songs for his pupils.
When Enoch died at the age of 33, he could not have predicted that Nkosi Sikele’ - the song he wrote as a young man - would become so influential. Joburg, the official website of the City of Johannesburg, tells us how that happened:
Sontonga, a Xhosa, was born in Uitenhage in the eastern Cape in 1873. He trained as a teacher at the Lovedale Institution and was sent to the Methodist Mission School in Nancefield south-west of Johannesburg. He married Diana Mgqibisa and had a son.
A choirmaster and photographer, Sontonga wrote the first verse and chorus of Nkosi Sikele’' iAfrika when he was 24, one of many songs he wrote for his pupils. Later the same year, he composed the music. The song is a prayer for God’s blessing on the land and all its people. A well-known Xhosa poet, Samuel Mqhayi, wrote seven additional stanzas for the song.
Sontonga’s choir sang the song around Johannesburg and KwaZulu-Natal, and other choirs followed them. The song was published in a local newspaper in 1927, and was included in the Presbyterian Xhosa hymn book as well as a Xhosa poetry book for schools.
Sontonga wrote his songs down in an exercise book, which was lent out to other choirmasters and eventually became the property of a family member, Boxing Granny. She never missed a boxing match in Soweto, hence the nickname. She died at about the time Sontonga’s grave was declared a heritage site in 1996, but the book was never found.
On 8 January 1912, at the first meeting of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), the forerunner of the African National Congress (ANC), seven years after Sontonga’s death in 1905, it was sung after the closing prayer. Solomon Plaatje, a founding member of the ANC, and a writer, had the song recorded in London in 1923. In 1925 the ANC adopted the song as the closing anthem for their meetings.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is the national anthem of Tanzania and Zambia and is also sung in Zimbabwe and Namibia.
South Africa’s anthem today is an amalgam of two anthems - Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and the Afrikaans anthem, Die Stem van Suid Afrika (The call of South Africa), written by Afrikaans poet CJ Langenhoven in 1918. [The anthem also includes a short section in English, reflecting "the rainbow" aspect of the South African people.]
According to Buff [that is Alan Buff, a senior manager at Johannesburg Parks and Technical Services Department who was charged with finding Enoch's grave] Sontonga’s wife, Diana, sold the rights to the song for a sixpence. She died in 1929.
A note about the Xhosa language ... it is characterized by clicking sounds. Have a listen to this guide trying to teach the clicking sounds to a non-Xhosa speaker.
A popular song, with lyrics in Xhosa, emphasizes the clicking sounds (which add a rhythmic dimension to the work). It is called "The Click Song" and, in this embedded video, we hear it performed by Miriam Makeba.
Nelson Mandela was also a Xhosa speaker. He was very supportive of beginning his country's new national anthem with Nkosi Sikelele'. It, among other things, helped South Africans to achieve peace and reconciliation within their racially diverse society.
To learn more about Enoch Sontonga - how he lived his life and why his gravesite became a national monument - see the Joburg story, entitled “The Author of Our Anthem.”
Words and Music by: Enoch Sontonga (1872-1905)
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