The humble and obscure life of Enoch Sontonga is an antithesis of the dreams he inspired in generations of Africans through his famous composition “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika“. Details of his short life are hard to come by. He was born in Uitenhage (Eastern Cape), in about 1873. Trained as a teacher at the Lovedale Institution, he was sent to a Methodist Mission school in Nancefield, near Johannesburg. He married Diana Mgqibisa, the daughter of a prominent minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and had one son.
A choirmaster and photographer, he wrote the first verse and chorus of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” when he was 24 (1897), one of many songs he wrote for his pupils. Later the same year, he composed the music. The song is a prayer for God’s blessing on the land and all its people. Sontonga’s choir sang the song around Johannesburg and KwaZulu-Natal, and other choirs followed them. It was first sung in public in 1899 at the ordination of Rev Boweni, a Shangaan Methodist Minister.
Most of Sontonga’s songs were sad, witnessing the suffering of African people in Johannesburg, but they were so popular that after his death choirs used to borrow them from his wife. According to sources, she eventually sold the rights to the song for a mere sixpence. She died in 1929.
Sontonga died of unknown causes at the young age of 32, in 1905. He was buried in Braamfontein, Johannesburg and his grave has only recently been discovered after intensive research. This was the announcement of the death of Enoch Sontonga:
Translation of original Xhosa item in the newspaper “Imvo Zabantsundu”, dated 27 June 1905.
SONTONGA, E. Johannesburg. On 18 April 1905 ENOCH M. SONTONGA passed away. He was not sick this time. He, however, suffered at times from stomach ache to the extent that he would predict that these were his last days on this earth. One Sunday he requested to take a photograph of his wife. The wife refused because she was suffering a toothache that particular day. This young man was a composer for the Church of Rev. P.J. Mzimba at one location in Johannesburg. He was also a photographer and a lay preacher. He is survived by his wife and one child. He was born in Uitenhage and was 33 years old.
Sontonga wrote his songs down in an exercise book, which was lent out to other choirmasters and eventually became the property of a family member, Boxing Granny. She never missed a boxing match in Soweto, hence the nickname. She died at about the time Sontonga’s grave was declared a heritage site in 1996, but the book was never found.
Solomon Plaatje, one of South Africa’s greatest writers and a founding member of the ANC, was the first to have the song recorded, accompanied by Sylvia Colenso on the piano. This was on 16 October 1923, in London. In 1925 the ANC adopted the song as the closing anthem for their meetings. In 1927 seven additional Xhosa stanzas were added by Samuel Mqhayi, a poet. The song was published in a local newspaper in the same year, and was included in the Presbyterian Xhosa hymn book “Ingwade Yama-culo Ase-rabe” in 1929. A Sesotho version was published in 1942 by Moses Mphahlele.
The Rev J L Dube’s Ohlange Zulu Choir popularised “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” at concerts in Johannesburg, and it became a popular church hymn that was also adopted as the anthem at political meetings. For decades Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was regarded as the national anthem of South Africa by the oppressed and it was always sung as an act of defiance against the apartheid regime. There are no standard versions or translations of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” so the words vary from place to place and from occasion to occasion. Generally the first stanza is sung in Xhosa or Zulu, followed by the Sesotho version. The song spread beyond the borders of South Africa and has been translated and adapted into a number of other languages. It is still the national anthem of Tanzania and Zambia and has also been sung in Zimbabwe and Namibia for many years.
A proclamation issued by the State President on 20 April 1994 stipulated that both “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” and “Die Stem” (the Call of South Africa), written by Afrikaans poet CJ Langenhoven in 1918, would be the national anthems of South Africa. In 1996 a shortened, combined version of the two anthems was released as the new National Anthem. On 18 April, 2005 Minister of Arts and Culture, Pallo Jordan said at the unveiling of the Enoch Sontonga Memorial:
“There is a saying that goes ‘those whom the gods love died young’ – Sontonga was one of those. His work will be immortalised as South Africa’s and other African countries’ national anthems.”
And so today, we celebrate Enoch Sontonga’s gift to us, a heroic message of calm, written in the eye of the storm. Today it forms part of South Africa’s national identity; and along with “Die Stem”, it brings together all the different strands of the country’s past in a union of inclusiveness, symbolizing the oneness of South Africa’s people.
The first two stanzas with its translation:
Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo,
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.
Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa la matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa South Afrika – South Afrika.