An act of vandalism at Braamfontein Cemetery helped locate the missing grave of Enoch Sontonga, the man who wrote South Africa’s national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (“God Bless Africa”).
The discovery of the grave, now a national monument, ended months of patient and ingenious detective work by City of Johannesburg officials, archeologists and historians.
Sontonga, a teacher and lay preacher, wrote the first verse and chorus of the anthem as a hymn for his school choir. He died in obscurity in 1905, aged just 33, seven years before the African National Congress (ANC) launched his hymn into prominence as an anthem of black struggle against oppression.
The search for Sontonga’s grave started by chance at a dinner by the National Monuments Council in honour of then-President Nelson Mandela, in Cape Town in late 1995.
A relative of Sontonga’s who was present told Mandela that Sontonga was believed to be buried somewhere at the Braamfontein Cemetery in Johannesburg. Mandela called for a memorial to Sontonga in the cemetery, to be erected in time for the first post- apartheid Heritage Day.
The black granite memorial to Sontonga,
designed to reflect the image of the viewer
The National Monuments Council instructed the Johannesburg Parks and Technical Services Department to investigate, with the project headed by Alan Buff, then the senior manager of Technical Support and Training.
But finding the grave proved far from simple. It took Buff almost nine months of intensive research – a lot of it in his own time – to locate the exact spot.
One problem was that in the early 1970s, the city council covered much of the long- disused cemetery with a metre of soil, and grassed it over, hiding all traces of the graves. Another problem was that although records of several graves under the name of Sontonga could be found, no grave could be found under “Enoch Sontonga”.
Hal Shaper, author and musician, who at the time was researching the history of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, suggested looking under “Enoch”. This tip proved correct: a grave number was discovered: grave number 4885, buried in the Christian Native section on 19 April 1905.
Sontonga had died unexpectedly the day before, on 18 April 1905. Buff checked his death certificate – he died of gastro-enteritis and a perforated appendix. “It was a common cause of death at the time – the water was not very safe.”
The Christian Native area consisted of three sections covering 10 acres, with 600 graves – but the plan for that section of the cemetery was missing. This called for sharp detective work.
Says Buff: “I took all the registers, marked off sections one by one and came up with an L-shape plan within which Sontonga was likely to be buried. But the problem was trying to establish the width of the pathways between graves and in what direction the graves were filled.”
Infra-red photographs taken in 1979, which reveal ground disturbances by measuring variations in ground temperatures, helped solve some of these problems: they indicated grave shapes and pathways.
The Department of Archaeology at Wits University was called in to do a shallow excavation to help establish the precise burial spacing.
“This helped bring the search down to a triangle of graves of 40 square metres, containing 33 graves. I bought a bottle of whiskey in anticipation of the find”, says Buff. But this still didn’t answer the question: where was grave 4885?
Vandalism and lateral thinking
“At the end of February, in the middle of my investigations, vandals removed tablets from the cremation wall”, says Buff. The vandalism prompted Buff to take a look at documents from the cremation section of the cemetery – which he had not considered before – and there he discovered a plan of the cemetery.
“It was the original cemetery plan and showed the starting point of the section where Sontonga was buried. I could now count the graves and establish his grave – the 112th grave in the second portion.”
The dig uncovered a grave number plate with 17 inscribed as the last two digits, with a faint 4 preceding the 17. “A check of the register showed that a number ending in 417 was situated four graves away in the same row as 4885.” Was it time to open the bottle of whiskey?
Further checks of the registers and plans revealed discrepancies and inaccuracies in the original plans. But the final clue was that the family had registered for private rites, which gave them the right to erect a headstone at the grave.
The Wits archeologists were called back to excavate further, and although no headstone was found, the mark of a headstone was visible. “No other graves in the vicinity had private rites, so this had to be his grave site,” exclaims Buff.
Grave 4885 had been located. It was time to open the bottle of whiskey.
By this stage the National Monuments Council had formed the Enoch Sontonga Committee. On Heritage Day, 24 September 1996, a large, striking black granite cube was unveiled on Sontonga’s grave, and the site was declared a national monument.
At the ceremony, the Order of Meritorious Service was bestowed on Sontonga posthumously, accepted by his granddaughter, Ida Rabotape.
The granite cube placed on his grave was designed by William Martinson, and is meant to signify reflections, especially as one moves closer to the monument and one’s image becomes visible.
Nelson Mandela unveiled the monument, and said: “By the pride with which we bellowed your melody and its lyrics – in good times and bad – we were saying to you, Enoch Mankayi Sontonga, that with your inspiration, we could move mountains .
“In paying this tribute to Enoch Mankayi Sontonga, we are recovering a part of the history of our nation and our continent . Our humble actions today form part of the re-awakening of the South African nation; the acknowledgement of its varied achievements.”
Source: City of Johannesburg
Originally published: 23 September 2002
Reviewed: 4 June 2012