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Tracing the Roots of ‘The Decolonised Anthem’


Lawrence Mduduzi Ndlovu is a Soweto-born Catholic cleric, lecturer, writer, poet and speaker, and arts enthusiast. He has written for Spotlight Africa, Daily Maverick, The Thinker, The Huffington Post, News24, The Southern Cross and The South African. He is a lecturer in the theology department at St Augustine College of South Africa. He is chairperson of the Choral Music Archive NPC, a trustee of the St Augustine Education Foundation Trust and an advisory council member of the Southern Cross Weekly. He was listed by the Mail & Guardian in the South African Top 200 Young South Africans list 2016. He is also the recipient of the 2016 Youth Trailblazer Award from the Gauteng provincial government.

There is something about music that transcends entertainment in times of struggle. It not only becomes what unites people, it also becomes their voice because they are unable to speak. In music is found the aspirations, hopes, pain and joys of a people.

The kind of agency and urgency that was unleashed by the #FeesMustFall movement should never be downplayed. That movement (campaign), although for some at times seems extreme in its methods and engagements, presented to this country a kind of young person who is very alive to the challenges of his/her time.

Although the tagline “fees must fall” seems to be addressing the issue of expensive tuition, it is in fact much bigger than the cost of university fees. It is fundamentally about the basic human right of access to education. The issue of access is multifaceted because it addresses also everything that is needed for a student to thrive – tuition, accommodation, food and so much more.

This movement has also shown that the notion of referring to young people born after 1994 as the “born free” generation is incorrect. There is nothing free about not having access to a basic human right such as education. There is nothing free about struggling through education, begging and borrowing, then having to struggle to find employment. There is no freedom in poverty.

These young people, like their parents before them, are faced with having to protest. The use of force against them and them throwing stones in retaliation was a sight that harkened South Africa to its painful past. Like their predecessors they struggled to have their plight heard so they too turned to music.

There is something about music that transcends entertainment in times of struggle. It not only becomes what unites people, it also becomes their voice because they are unable to speak. In music is found the aspirations, hopes, pain and joys of a people.

In the #FeesMustFall movement, the song Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica (The Decolonised Anthem) is a summary of their lament and their hope. Although some have ignorantly called it the ‘original’ Nkosi Sikelel’, it is common knowledge that that is not the case. Enoch Sontonga composed that original hymn, which is a very important hymn in the life and struggle history of this country and the entire continent. The students call their version The Decolonised Anthem. That speaks to their apprehension and that of many in South Africa about what was done in taking Sontonga’s hymn (of the oppressed) and linking it to Die Stem (of the oppressor).

From an artistic perspective, away from the political conversation, what was done to Sontonga’s work, the deleting of the prayerful hymnal structure, is a discussion for another day. Careful analysis of The Decolonised Anthem shows that what is similar between Sontonga’s work and the Decolonised Anthem is the first three lines; “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica, maluphakanyiswe uphondo lwayo, yizwa imithandazo yethu.” That’s as far as the lyrical similarities go. The melodic line is similar although not overtly. The tempo and style are different. In fact, I venture to suggest that The Decolonised Anthem lends itself more to being a new composition than it does to being a new arrangement of Sontonga’s work. Discuss.

Watch and listen:

Having said that, the motivation of the song is definitely Sontonga’s composition. Kudzaishe Chidakwa, the youth choir conductor (director) at the Apostolic Faith of Portland Oregon Church in Harare, Zimbabwe, remembers the genesis of the song well. According to Chidakwa the song emerged out of an SADC youth camp which the church organises annually. The year was 2013 when young people were singing and many youth choirs were arranging and adjusting songs freestyle. If you have ever been a member of a youth choir you will understand this very well.

In such sessions, which are often informal and a tad playful, even kwaito songs would be arranged into serious choral hits at the flick of a switch. Need I remind you of the South African trio that went viral online who rearranged the American rapper Silent?’s debut single ‘Watch me whip, watch me nae nae’ into a three-part harmony which could have been sung by any serious choir.

Chidakwa adds that because there were so many young people from different parts of southern Africa, verse two of their singing Noma sekunzima emhlabeni, sihlukunyezwa kabuhlungu, Nkosi siph’ amandla okunqoba silwe nosathane / moya munye (even though it is difficult here on earth, being persecuted ruthlessly, Lord give us the strength to be victors and fight satan/ and be of one spirit) was also sung in Shona and Setswana. For Chidakwa these lyrics resonated with the Christian journey which is often understood as being difficult and the experience of many young people who come across a variety of difficult situations. Chidakwa committed this song to a score sheet and sent me the sound clip of the melody. The melody has changed very little with just small ending notes here and there as the song is being sung in different places.

In December 2013 Esther Bhosha attended the December youth camp in Zimbabwe hosted by the Apostolic Faith of Portland Oregon Church. There for the first time she heard them sing the this new Nkosi Sikelel’ and it made a deep impression on her. Bhosha was starting her studies at Wits University in Johannesburg the following year. She arrived and joined the Wits Seventh Day Adventist Student Movement Choir (Wits SDASM Choir) directed by Gilbert Baleseng Matlhoko. The choir was also broadening its own repertoire, planning especially for their performances and tour. Bhosha introduced the song to the Wits SDASM choir from what she could remember. The choir master, Matlhoko, and other choir members worked hard to get the harmonies from what Bhosha could remember because there was no music score to learn it from. In that very same year after workshopping the song for some time they performed the song at their Wits concert and it was well received.

The song lay dormant for some time until in 2016 the Economic Freedom Fighters’ student command member Koketso Poho, a student at Wits university, heard it being sung by the Wits SDASM choir and liked it. He admits to being a great lover of music, especially choral music, because his family in Dobsonville is highly musical and is active in the church choir circles of the Lutheran Church. He found that the message of the song resonated with the student experience and the experience of many young South Africans.

Poho adjusted the song, taking into account that his fellow fighters would not be able to sing it in its typical format. To use his words, “I changed the style so that it would fit that of a revolutionary song.” It was when the song was sung by the students in their #FeesMustFall protests that it took a life of its own and was seen and heard by people everywhere.

Hear students led by Koketso Poho:

Perhaps the most fascinating part of this minor research was when I asked all these young people if they had bothered to register the song with a music rights organisation, be it in Zimbabwe or South Africa? None of them wanted to claim ownership of it because they all felt it belonged to all the young people who have contributed in making it what it is. Although a lot of work was done to formalise it, chorally speaking, none of them from Kudzai Chidakwa to Esther Bhosha to Gilbert Matlhoko to Koketso Poho were interested in that conversation. They were happy that it has offered a voice to many young people in Southern Africa. DM


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