Opinionista Stephen Grootes 2 July 2014

The national anthem: Do what you’ve gotta do

ANC MP Lindiwe Maseko has suggested that the SABC should broadcast the national anthem twice a day on its radio stations, because that will “instill patriotism”. It is a beautiful piece of music that deserves to be heard more often than it is now. But the suggestion is not nearly as simple as it sounds. Because the song represents us, in all our diverse glory.

It’s difficult to know where to start with our anthem. What is it about it that we would all agree on? That it is a thing of beauty? Yes. That it makes us feel proud? Absolutely. That it makes us, well, us? Yes, indeed. It is one of the pieces of music that makes us want to puff our chests out, a reaction that makes us uniquely South African. Only we react to this music in this way, with a sense of South Africanness.

But even when we sing it, all together in big stadiums, for example, we all still look a little different. Some of us, with the benefit of an education from the Transvaal Departement van Onderwys (Transvaal Education Department), maybe stand to attention, thumbs pointing down on a straight stripe with our legs. A legacy of the slight militarism that was supposed to be instilled in us. Others, often from a more politically conscious background, may raise our right fists, clenched. Some politicians, on TV, will just stand solemnly. Even in that, we are properly South African. We may all look different, but we are all doing the same thing, singing the same song.

There is quite a strong argument in favour of hearing our anthem more often. The danger with hearing it only at sporting or political events is that many millions of us then won’t hear it at all, really. While it may be heresy to anyone interested enough in our politics to take the trouble to read this, many people don’t give a fig, and don’t watch rugby or football either. Which means they hardly ever hear the wonderful strains of our anthem.

And it does unify us, we should all know the words by now, and music does indeed temper the savage beast that can occasionally be our differences. And what’s twice a day on an SABC radio station anyway?

But then there are other questions. If the SABC does it, should all commercial radio stations do it too? What if they don’t want to? Could it be tempting for some people to claim that those that don’t are not “as South African” as those that do? And for those that don’t face some form of informal sanction, could ministers refuse their requests for interview, for example?

And what if all the commercial stations decide not to play the anthem on a regular basis, while the SABC does? If you look at the race/class axis, and then the rural and urban split in this country, you’d find that the more urban, middle-class and white you are, the less you listen to SABC radio stations, and the more you listen to commercial stations. So if were just the SABC, then the differences between us could somehow be exacerbated. In the way that the split in the TV we watch is already felt. The poor and rural watch SABC One, Two and Three and e.tv. The rich watch DSTV. So it may in fact be counter-productive to do this.

Many people with long memories would also suggest that the mandatory playing of, or listening to, the national anthem would be taking us back fifty years. To a time when it was often played before almost any event, whether it be a movie showing in a cinema, or a play in a theatre. The anthem then wasn’t “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”, or even “Die Stem”. It was “God Save the King”. That didn’t necessarily instill much warm feeling towards what he represented among those who voted for the National Party in 1948.

There is another problem that all of this brings up. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m not wild about hearing “Die Stem” played twice a day every day. It holds memories of a time before where we are now that may not be very comfortable for everyone.

Our anthem as it is is a product of its time. It was, like so many other things, the result of a negotiated settlement. While Apartheid is still with us in our lived experience in so many ways, and while Liberation is a feeling that is also with us, it may be wrong to keep our identity constrained to just Apartheid, and Liberation. In other words, while for the moment these may still be the biggest parts of our identity, hopefully, they will not always be. Hopefully, we will transcend Apartheid, and its aftermath, economically, politically, and culturally. And thus our identity will grow in a different direction. At some point, we may need to start a real conversation about what we would like that to be, and that may lead to a discussion around our anthem.

There are many people who look to the United States, and the Pledge of Allegiance, which is chanted by most children at the beginning of their school day. They suggest that this does lead to a feeling of patriotism, that it promotes social cohesion. That is probably true. And that does make this suggestion seriously worth considering. Anything that makes our children more confident is usually a good thing, and who wouldn’t want their kids to be as confident as the average American child? But there may also be a link between that morning ritual, and the sort of dunder-headed right wing thinking of part of US culture. While different people respond to this kind of ritual in very different ways, the fact is the worst aspects of American political culture feature people who believe children of immigrants born in the US should be chucked back to Mexico, without any kind of hearing. There is a refusal to listen to the other point of view that can be very destructive. Sometimes I wonder if there is a link between that, and the continued recital of a pledge.

Sometimes by making those inside a group feel more strongly part of that group, you can be exclusive, you can make it harder for people to join the group, or to be different in their own way.

All of that said, there is something still very cool about the idea, about hearing our anthem more often. Maybe, just maybe, we should all just play it from time to time, whether on the radio, or in our cars, or on our headphones. Maybe the solution to this is, as it is so often in this country, to just chill, and do whatever it is that you want to do. In the glorious freedom that our anthem celebrates. DM


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