Let’s ditch this national anthem

2014-04-28 10:00

The streets of Harare on April 18 2000 were desolate.

It was a public holiday: Independence Day. The day the country marked 20 years of freedom. But there was nothing to celebrate.

War veterans were occupying commercial farms and crippling agricultural production. Zanu-PF militias and security forces were harassing, beating and killing government opponents. The judiciary and media were under siege. The economy was on a downward spiral.

Inflation was skyrocketing, petrol queues were lengthening and supermarket shelves were emptying.

Robert Mugabe was promising the nation yet another 20 years of his great rule. He tried very hard to excite the rent-a-crowd audience at the official celebrations but they were as excited as hard-core Blue Bulls fans at a ballet performance.

In South Africa, we are marking 20 years of freedom of a relatively content people. There are tons of problems and many of them have been enunciated on these pages, on broadcast airwaves and in countless conversations. We bitch, we moan and we are hard on ourselves, but we are generally a very resilient people.

Today, the people of this good republic will be braaing, having picnics, clubbing and laughing at Jacob Zuma’s speech-reading skills.

But having said that, I wish to sound a discordant note on this wonderful Freedom Day. My discordant note has to do with that abortion we call our national anthem. A merger of two beautiful musical compositions, the South African anthem is the most terrible advertisement for compromise.

For someone like me who grew up with Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, I find the bastardisation of the original hymn an insult to its composer Enoch Sontonga. I’m certain that those who grew up on CJ Langehoven and Marthinus Lourens de Villiers’ Die Stem feel the same way about how their work has been butchered.

The anthem, which will be sung at many venues today and in the coming weeks, is one of Nelson Mandela’s most regrettable legacies. He forced it down our throats as his way of getting us to behave as one nation.

What better way to express our nationhood than to sing as one, the great man surmised at the time.

So he took away one of the things that had come to symbolise the struggle for freedom in South Africa. At every rally, march and protest meeting over the decades of resistance to apartheid, Nkosi Sikelela was constant. Revolutionary songs chopped and changed but Nkosi went nowhere.

In the prisons cells and exile camps, the anthem was sung with feeling and gusto. It was a song of hope and prayer

that the Almighty would bless Africa, rid her and her children of bad vibes and raise her status on the planet.

Die Stem is also a prayer but one that spoke only of and to a section of the population. It is a limited song that speaks of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of only one South African tribe. As beautiful as the melody is, its association with oppression is one that can never be wiped away.

As a patriotic citizen, I have tried thousands of times to get my lips to move and to get my voice to emit sounds when it got to Die Stem part of the anthem, but I have always just frozen. My lips just stick together and I feel offended at the people who are singing it around me.

Many a time, I have laughed when ANC leaders warned black people that they would be helping to bring back apartheid if they voted for the DA. What great irony for them to make such a warning when they heartily sing apartheid’s great anthem.

The thing about the South African anthem is that it just doesn’t work as a musical piece. I know I am no musician, my career having been cut brief when I was handed that stupid metal triangle to “ping” at intervals during school choir practice.

But I know a good anthem when I hear one.

I have been moved by the anthems of national teams that have faced the Springboks, Bafana Bafana and the Proteas. There is always something in those anthems that would make the gun-hater in me pick up a rifle and head for the war front in defence of land and volk.

The South African anthem does not evoke that sense of patriotism in me.

My longing for Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika peaked a few years ago when, during a visit to Zambia, I heard their national anthem being played. The tune was that of our Nkosi. The Zambians, just like several other African countries, adopted Sontonga’s tune upon the attainment of their independence.

We, on the other hand, killed it.

I have many wishes on this Freedom Day. Chief among them is that we never follow the path of the country next door and that instead we steer the country in the right direction so that we can celebrate the 30th anniversary of our republic as a happier people.

Also very high up on my wish list is thatwe find the courage to ditch this abortion of an anthem and get ourselves a real anthem. Let us give Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika its due place as South Africa’s unifying song.

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