This is the first in an occasional series on what South Africa would look like should red overalls become official Parliamentary garb. Today: on silencing The Call. By RICHARD POPLAK.
EFF calls for Nkosi Sikelela iAfrika to remain as it was because it is adequate as the anthem of the people. It is an intellectual heritage of liberation and the battle for a more human continent in peace with itself. It prays not only for South Africa, but the African continent and its people, wherever they are in the world.
—Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, EFF National Spokesperson
Every so often, Die Stem—currently functioning as the back half of South Africa’s national anthem—explodes like a piece of Boer War-era ordnance in a KZN chicken coop. The most recent detonation occurred in July of this year at an Afrikaans cultural festival called Innibos; the man working the blast cap was South Africa’s famous remaining proponent of hair peroxide, Steve Hofmeyr. Under a starry sky and between glowing digital banners advertising Standard Bank and Jacaranda Radio, The Hof employed his finest faux-Springsteen burble to sing white South Africa’s ancient hymnal in front of 45,000 hand-waving superfans. He intoned the final lines of the first stanza a cappella, his audience singing along while slurping beer from sippy-cups:
Ons sal lewe, ons sal sterwe,
Ons vir jou, Suid Afrika
For those unversed in Die Taal:
We shall live, we shall die,
South Africa, for Thee.
Ah, poetry in the age of democracy! Back when Die Stem—a liedjie Hofmeyr describes as “our sacred traditional song”—was the nation’s only anthem, people were treated rather harshly if they belted out Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika at cultural festivals, which in those days were called “riots”. In this particular case, Hofmeyr’s act of defying the ban (his term) on singing Die Stem earned him a sizeable appearance fee and unlimited boerie rolls, and absolutely no time in solitary confinement. Hofmeyr has surely displayed admirable courage in the face of politically correct Tweeting. But where are the stakes for this fearless troubadour? He is a soft man in a soft time, and the only danger he faces is the admittedly significant cancer risk associated with his hairstyle.
Or perhaps I’m mistaken. Hofmeyr undoubtedly see himself as one of the lucky few Afrikaners to have dodged the black-on-white violence resulting in numbers of dead so considerable that they would “fill a soccer stadium”. (The image belongs to Hofmeyr, and it’s always confused me: would the corpses be piled onto the field like tinder? Or seated neatly in the stands like a mute, bourgeois PLS crowd? Or a bit of both?) Hofmeyr’s genocide claims have of course been roundly rubbished by people who can count, but that doesn’t really matter. It’s the siege mentality that’s important here. Hofmeyr’s re-upped version of die volk has been looking around in their own private Mordor for twenty long years now. Finally: wish granted. An enemy worthy of the name.
In November of last year, Andile Mngxitama, the EFFtopia’s chief ideological architect, fulminated the following via a social network: “Black people sing Die Stem, the national anthem of settlers glorifying land theft. Imagine a Jewish person singing Nazi songs? Vuka Darkie.”
With Godwin’s Law finally in play, it begins.
Every Clint Eastwood fan knows how central a moment was the singing of both anthems at the South African Rugby World Cup Finals in 1995. The official merging of Die Stem with Nkosi in 1997 must be counted as one of the great acts of reconciliation in our species’ history, and this hybrid has stood as a testament to the kind of country South Africa hoped to be—light unto the world, rainbow project. But people are people, the cultural battle lines have hardened, and folks like Hofmeyr find themselves facing off against the new crew.
In a recent op-ed for The Independent titled “Time to Dump Die Stem”, EFF MP and national spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi was fairly clear on whether or not Die Stem should remain a component of South Africa’s anthem. “Simply put,” writes Ndlozi, “Die Stem represents a white supremacist consciousness: it is the “Dubula iK****r” of the Afrikaner nationalists. And that it has made it into the post-Apartheid democratic project also represents the continued bossy nature of the Afrikaner racists who were at the negotiation tables of the mid-1990s.”
In other words, Ndlozi is not a fan. His issue, he claims, is the song’s message. C.J. Langenhoven’s poem was written in 1918—the same year, incidentally, that Nelson Mandela was born—and set to music by Reverend Marthinus Lourens de Villiers in 1921. If we disregard the fourth, religiously-themed stanza added at the request of the Nationalist government in the 50s, it’s quite a nice poem. But the frequent use of the pronoun ons—us—requires an abundance of magical thinking, because it wasn’t meant to be inclusive: Langenhoven, AKA Gentle Neelsie, was by all accounts a lovely man with a fine sense of humour, but one wouldn’t describe him as an anti-Apartheid activist.
There is, however, a deeper war here, an aesthetic battle that dates back to the earliest days of the colonial project, and concerns the sub-atomic particles swirling in the culture of Langenhoven’s poetry. In his White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa, J.M. Coetzee wrote:
[The] landscape remains alien, impenetrable, until a language is found in which to win it, speak it, represent it. It is no oversimplification to say that landscape art and landscape writing in South Africa from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth revolve around the question of finding a language to fit Africa, a language that will be authentically African.
Die Stem in its 1918 incarnation is very much a work of landscape writing: in Coetzee’s formulation it was derived from a tradition attempting to own, to create in its own image. Furthermore, Langenhoven was one of the major Afrikaans literary figures, and Afrikaans has a bad rap in certain revolutionary circles.
In this view, Die Stem is part of a culture of violence against blacks in a way that the theme song of Liewe Heksie, for instance, is not. Fusing Langenhoven’s masterwork with Enoch Sontongo’s Nkosi has resulted in a further act of brutality, of erasure, claims Ndlozi. It rips away the seven stanzas added by Samuel Mqhayi to the original in 1927, stripping the hymn much of its power. (At EFF election rallies, Ndlozi sang the entire song, and believe me, he’d kick Hofmeyr’s ass in an anthem-off). According to the EFF, “The new democratic project took the prayer of the African child, in it removed her plea for the Holy Spirit and substituted it with a “Kill the k****r” song. This replacement must be counted as a violent silencing of the black voices that spoke back to power.”
But there are nuances upon nuances being missed here. Interestingly enough, for a ditty that means “God Bless Africa”, Nkosi belongs in fact to the Methodist hymnal tradition—Sontonga borrowed its melodic cue from Welsh composer Joseph Parry’s Aberystwyth. The Xhosa and Zulu mix that we currently sing on our way to the first stanza of Die Stem is a multi-culti globalised mash-up that Shakira could be proud of. Lesson: there are no absolutes in this country, no unsullied “ancient traditional songs”. Everything is fused, everything hybrid.
And so in the volkspele dancing circle that is South African cultural discourse, the reactionaries from the left nudge ever closer to the reactionaries on the right. (BTW, even the freaking volkspele was imported wholesale from Sweden. Don’t tell The Hof!) But the rhetorical impetus here lies with the EFF. In the looming EFFtopia, the red overalls will take their pangas and rent Die Stem from Nkosi, and God will bless Africa without being distracted by all that ons stuff. “Can whites live with this?” asks Ndlozi. “Can they appreciate an anthem that is in Xhosa and Sesotho to also represent them? Or it is only adequate, complete and full when it includes their European languages?”
If The Hof is lucky, he’ll still have big financial institutions sponsoring festivals in which he can exhibit his brave streak of cultural contrarianism. But from my understanding of their election manifesto, the EFF is planning on nationalising the banks, so I suppose he’ll be shit out of luck. It’ll be small quiet acoustic sing-a-longs in ox wagon laagers, then. Or perhaps a real cultural war, in which the stakes are remarkably high, and in which symbolic erasures lead to actual erasures, and the dead are left to rot in soccer stadiums (see: Ukraine).
Nah, millenarian nuttiness aside, South Africa is nowhere near all that. And Hofmeyr has every right, of course, to sing Die Stem wherever and whenever he feels moved to do so. It’s just a shame that he has never felt the need to infuse it with a new message, with a new formulation. And so one of South Africa’s great reconciliatory symbols is reduced to a political sideshow, and the country makes a little less music while creating a whole lot more noise. DM
Photo: Julius Malema (R) and Floyd Shivambu of the Economic Freedom Fighters are seen in the National Assembly during the swearing in of MP’s as South Africa’s fifth Parliament convenes for the first time in Cape Town on Wednesday, 21 May 2014. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA
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