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We need a new national anthem that unites all South Africans

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Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

The minister of arts and culture should take the lead in facilitating a process where each member of South African society has the opportunity to make a contribution to a new national anthem.

On Wednesday 21 August 2019, the Equality Court ruled that exhibiting the old South African flag is hate speech, harmful and racist. I am not going to repeat what Dr Azille Coetzee said in Rapport (1 September 2019) or what colleague Professor Anton van Niekerk said in Die Burger (3 September 2019). I have a great appreciation that they have expressed opinions on this matter, because it could so easily be deduced that only black South Africans feel strongly about these issues.

Die Stem next?

Shortly after the ruling of the Equality Court, fears were expressed that Die Stem, as part of the current national anthem, would be targeted next. On Die Stem I have previously written extensively (Die Burger, 18 July 2018) but a number of new perspectives have come to the fore which justify revisiting the matter.

Die Stem van Suid-Afrika was written by CJ Langenhoven and composed by ML de Villiers in 1921. At that time the SABC regularly played God Save the King to close its daily broadcasts. Gradually the SABC also started playing Die Stem along with His Majesty’s song. Die Stem was sung in public for the first time on 31 May 1928, but was accepted as the national anthem on 2 May 1957.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was written in 1897 as a church hymn by Methodist teacher Enoch Sontonga and was later appropriated as a freedom song by black South Africans. It is also the national anthem of Tanzania and Zambia. The lyrics have for many white South Africans come to symbolise a protest song with which they are not comfortable

Symbols carry weight

According to Professor Elmien du Plessis, a jurist of North West University, symbols do indeed carry weight. Deputy Judge President Phineas Mojapelo said in his judgment that the old national flag is a symbol of apartheid which has brought pain and humiliation for most people in this country. The question is: what makes the old flag different from Die Stem? Like the old flag, Die Stem is divisive, not conciliatory, and most black South Africans (including coloured and Indian citizens) are not comfortable with Die Stem.

The idea of including Die Stem in Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was a gesture to make white South Africans feel welcome in the new South Africa. It was a noble goal, but was it wise to use an apartheid symbol for this purpose? White people have in the past 25 years demonstrated that they are indisputably part of this country and its future. They don’t need an apartheid symbol to remind them that they are authentic South Africans.

Die Stem van Suid Afrika has replaced God Save the King, just as the old flag had replaced the Union Jack. The government of the time broke completely with the colonial symbols because these symbols brought pain and sadness. South Africans should thus understand that it is better to get rid of the old symbols and start anew.

There are also other factors which make the current national anthem unacceptable: only five of the 11 official language groups are included, namely isiXhosa (verse 1, lines 1 and 2), isiZulu (verse 2, lines 3 and 4), SeSotho (second verse), Afrikaans (verse 3) and English (verse 4).

Then there is the musical factor: Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is a hymn, even a prayer, while Die Stem was written with a marching beat.

Further: South Africa was never a country only for Christians. The Muslims of the Bo-Kaap have been here since 1794. Today we are a secular state with a diverse population. Recently my colleague, Professor Nuraan Davids, a practising Muslim, wrote in The Cape Argus about the discomfort she and others feel because South African society continues to force Christianity on all South Africans. How sensitive and inclusive is it towards South Africans of differing beliefs as well as citizens who are non-believers to have a Christian hymn as a national anthem?

When eight new EFF councillors were sworn in in the eThekwini Metro (Durban) in August 2016, they participated in singing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, but when Die Stem followed they stopped singing and sat down in protest. According to the EFF, Sontonga’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was written to present the suppression of black people. Contaminating it with Die Stem not only detracts from the song, it denies everything for which Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika stands.

The leader of the DA, Musi Maimane, has also indicated his discomfort with the singing of Die Stem. During coalition discussions with the EFF he said, according to reports in 2016, most black people were unhappy to sing Die Stem. This prompted the acclaimed journalist Max du Preez to challenge Maimane to lead the resistance to Die Stem. The DA is the party supported by most minority groups and whites, and should the proposal come from the DA it would, according to Du Preez, constitute a powerful message of goodwill to the black majority which would also promote nation-building.

We can continue with an ostrich attitude, burying our heads in the sand and challenging destiny, until someone one day at an event observed by the world will follow the example of the EFF and Springbok centre Michael du Plessis. Du Plessis years ago did exercises while Die Stem was sung before a Test match.

By doing the right thing now we can save South Africa much embarrassment.

Something completely new

The alternative is a completely new national anthem for South Africa. It should preferably not be longer than three verses of one minute and 48 seconds, as Nelson Mandela proposed. In my previous article, I suggested Johnny Clegg should be asked to write a new national anthem. Clegg, also known as the “White Zulu”, was in my view the ideal choice because he had succeeded in reconciling South Africa’s Western past with African culture.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. Clegg has since died. On the day of his death, every radio and TV channel played his legendary song Asimbonanga, a song that Clegg wrote for Mandela in 1986 when Mandela was still in prison. A golden opportunity has been lost. But it is not too late.

The minister of arts and culture should take the lead in facilitating a process where each member of South African society has the opportunity to make a contribution to a new national anthem, if they wish. Utilise Heritage Month to launch a national competition for the composition of a new national anthem. Somewhere in South Africa, there is a talented composer who could produce a melody which would gain the approval of everyone.

11 languages

Consult with all role players and obtain inputs from everyone. Through consensus (perhaps a referendum?) decisions can be made to select the best composition and lyrics. Thereafter, the new national anthem must be made available in all 11 languages so that everyone can sing the national anthem in their mother tongue. One can only really identify with the national anthem if you understand the words. Currently, it is a senseless exercise because most South Africans don’t understand what they are singing.

Finally, the national anthem should preferably reflect our country’s secularity, completely independent of any religion.

I can imagine how many composers, poets and writers would welcome such a process, not to mention the new pool of talent which would come to the fore. Not only should this be a transparent process, but it could blossom into a powerful, unifying event – something this country desperately needs.

Advocate André Gaum of the Human Rights Commission said recently, with reference to the Langebaan incident involving Springbok centre Eben Etzebeth, that it is clear and of concern that there is still much tension between black and white communities. That is the very reason why we need a national anthem which unites South Africans, instead of dividing them: a song with which all can identify.

Reconciliation is only possible if the terms are fair and accepted by all. Let us do what we should have done 25 years ago. Let us start anew.

Only then can true healing start. DM

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