Enoch Sontonga, a teacher and lay preacher from the Eastern Cape, died in obscurity in 1905 years ago, aged just 33. But he left an indelible legacy. His hymn, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (“God Bless Africa”), went on to become Africa’s most famous anthem of black struggle against oppression.
The Uitenhage-born choirmaster was honoured at a wreath-laying ceremony at Braamfontein Cemetery in Johannesburg on the 100 anniversary of his death in September 2005.
A prayer for God’s blessing
Sontonga wrote the first verse and chorus of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, a prayer for God’s blessing on the land and all its people, as a hymn for his school choir in 1897. Later in the same year, he composed the music.
The famous song has since been reworked and adopted as South Africa’s national anthem, translated into numerous African languages, including Swahili, and incorporated into the national anthem of Zambia, Tanzania and Namibia.
Searching for Enoch Sontonga
An act of vandalism at Braamfontein Cemetery helped locate the grave of the man who wrote SA’s national anthem, ending months of detective work by Johannesburg officials, archeologists and historians.
The song was sung in public at the ordination of Reverend Boweni, a Shangaan Methodist minister, in 1899.
On 8 January 1912, at the first meeting of the South African Native National Congress, the forerunner of the African National Congress, it was sung after the closing prayer.
Solomon Plaatje, a founding member of the ANC, recorded the song in London in 1923. In 1925 the ANC adopted the song as the closing anthem for their meetings.
The song was published in a local newspaper, Umthetheli Wabantu, on 11 June 1927, and was included in the Presbyterian Xhosa hymn book as well as a Xhosa poetry book for schools. Seven additional stanzas in Xhoza were added by the poet Samuel Mqhayi, and a Sesotho version was published by Moses Mphahlele in 1942.
Popularised at concerts in Johannesburg by Reverend JL Dube’s Ohlange Zulu Choir, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was later adopted as an anthem at political meetings.
Before South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994, the country’s official anthem was Die Stem van Suid Afrika (“The Call of South Africa”), composed by Afrikaans poet CJ Langenhoven in 1918. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was the “unofficial anthem”, sung by the majority of the population.
In 1994, the two anthems were amalgamated into one.
Apparently Sontonga’s wife, Diana, sold the rights to the song for a sixpence. She died in 1929.
‘Be aware of our heroes’
Enoch Mankayi Sontonga, born in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape in 1873, was buried at Braamfontein Cemetery on 19 April 1905.
At a ceremony in 2005 to mark the centenary of his death, then-Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan related how the authorities had struggled to piece together the life of the composer, relying on old newspapers, burial registers and other sources that gave contradictary clues to the location and year of Sontonga’s death.
Lamenting the loss of Sontonga’s exercise book – in which, it is believed, he recorded many of his songs – Jordan appealed to the country’s writers, artists and composers to deposit copies of their work with the National Archives, since “we all have the responsibility of preserving our heritage”.
Sontonga’s exercise book 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.
“I wonder how many works we have lost as a country because the previous government did not care about the culture and history of black South Africa,” Jordan said. “We need to be aware of our heroes so that we can develop as a people.”
Enoch Rabotapi, Sontonga’s great grandson, said: “Some of us, the young generation, didn’t attach any significance to his work, but then our grandmother made sure we knew of this wealth . of his contribution to the nation. She used to talk about it”.
“We feel proud of his contribution towards the well-being of our nation and Africa.”
First published: 20 April 2005
Reviewed: 4 July 2013
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