It’s time to have the big talk about our anthem

2011-08-28 10:58

Let’s stop blaming those who can’t quite remember the words of our national anthem. It may be embarrassing, and even deeply annoying, to watch someone make a mess of the national anthem, but it’s not their memory that is at fault. There are deeper sociopolitical issues.

It is easy to demonise someone for bungling the national anthem, ­especially when it is performed at a high-profile, deeply symbolic event like the naming of South Africa’s World Cup rugby team.

This week it was Ard Matthews’ turn to find out just how touchy South Africans were about their ­anthem. He joined Ras Dumisani in the ranks of national anthem infamy.

But the wrath that followed only dealt with the symptom rather than the cause – ignorance of the lyrics of the national anthem.
There are many South Africans who don’t have a clue about the Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika part of the national anthem. Similarly, there are many South Africans who don’t know the words to the Die Stem part of the ­national anthem.

This is probably the easiest thing to fix because humans beings can easily sing in languages they neither speak nor understand.

In this way, it is possible to bridge the language barriers that separate South Africans by tapping into the musical power of the hybrid anthem.

But it is not always just a case of ignorance of the lyrics. There are some who have simply not bothered to learn the national anthem because of their own personal views. What’s fascinating is that it’s not as if they are not proud South Africans. Their issue is with the very nature of ­merging two songs with such charged and polar histories.

Singer Thandiswa Mazwai was brave to express publicly what many share only privately when she spoke of her unease with Die Stem. Others simply express their opinion by not bothering to sing the lyrics of one part of the anthem. You see it at events when some simply stop singing when it comes to the part of the anthem they either don’t know or dislike.

That Mazwai was pilloried, even though many commentators agreed with her, shows the potential for this issue to be divisive. But she’s not alone. And that’s why the national ­anthem shouldn’t only be discussed when someone unfortunately mangles its words.

It is easy to grasp why, in our rush to forge a new identity and create ­unity with shared symbols, we have little patience with those who ­express reservations. But we need to find a way to ensure that these ­symbols are shared viscerally.

We were well served by the notion of the Rainbow Nation, but we have recently woken up to the fact that it does not erase our problems.

The deeper issues regarding the national anthem will not be solved by throwing stones at those who can’t remember the lyrics.
When the anthem is sung at sports events, you can tell whether it’s a ­soccer or rugby match just by the way the two parts of the merged anthem are sung. This is the much bigger problem.
As South Africans we have astonished the world with our ability to do the impossible. But it seems as if once we’d finished talking at Codesa, we thought the time for talking was over.

Now more than ever we need to talk – especially about the small things. It is so tempting to dismiss them as insignificant, but they are the things that shape our inner-most beliefs and determine whether we can learn to love things we once loathed.

If we have the bigger conversation about our shared symbols, we will find that the smaller moments – such as bungled renditions of the anthem – will disappear.

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