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A new national anthem

Rodrigo Orihuela’s recent post about the importance of national anthems in sports
reminded me that we South Africans need a new national anthem.

The swell of pride that I feel when I hear the opening strains of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika at a rugby Test match is replaced by intense shame when 35 000 white throats start roaring out Die Stem halfway into the song.

National anthems are patriotic songs that seek to reflect the unity, history and traditions of a country. Our anthem certainly reflects the history of our country but none of the unity that we strive to achieve. It is a mash-up of a song: one part glorious bilingual hymn, one part bilingual military march. The two exist uncomfortably side by side, separated by a key and time change. It’s an anthem that seeks to be everything to everyone and ends up leaving no one satisfied.

Enoch Sontonga’s Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is a beautiful hymn that fully deserves to be recognised as one of the great anthems of all time. Unfortunately, Zambia and Tanzania gained their respective independence before South Africa and claimed it as their own. We need our own anthem. Die Stem has had its time — the only people who would truly be sorry to see it go will probably carry on singing the full version of it at secret meetings on rural farms where they plot the downfall of government over bottles of mampoer.

So how do we choose a new national anthem? One option is to hold a competition for South African composers to come up with an anthem. Programmes such as Idols and Pop Stars have taught us that musical contests and competitions are a pretty sure way to ensure a mediocre product. I suspect that we’d end up with something awful like My African Dream if we trod this route.

There is an elegant solution — one that would help correct one of the great musical injustices of all time in the process.

In 1939, a man named Solomon Linda composed a beautiful, haunting Zulu song called Mbube, which was bought by Gallo Music for 10 shillings and later exported to the United States. It was variously re-recorded and arranged into songs called Wimoweh and The Lion Sleeps Tonight.

Linda never enjoyed copyright protection for his work and died a pauper, while American composers like George Weiss who took the song and parlayed it off as their own work made tens of millions of dollars in royalties. Mbube was such a startlingly good piece of songwriting that the isicathamiya Zulu choral music sung by Linda and the Evening Bards and later made famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo came to be known popularly as mbube music.

This song would be perfect for an anthem. It has one of the most recognisable and recorded melodies in the world. We could reclaim the song from the money-grabbing clutches of plagiarists like George Weiss and company, and at the same time the South African government could pay out Linda’s family with a nice, fat cheque that would go some way to redressing their past musical injustices.

We could get Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo to flesh out the lyrics and rewrite the harmonies so that us mortals could sing it. It’s such a simple and beautiful piece of music that even people with limited musical ability would be able to pick it up in a few minutes.

If we did all of this, South Africa would have one of the most beautiful national anthems in the world, a melody that is already renowned worldwide and would sound absolutely incredible when sung by 4  000 people at a Test match. After all, Mbube is a song about hunting a lion — a far more appropriate subject for a rugby Test match than a song about how blue our skies are.

Required reading: In the Jungle — Rian Malan (PDF)

A more libellous and profane version of this post originally appeared in Stage Magazine in May 2006