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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
God bless Africa,
Lift her horn on high,
Hear our prayers.
God bless us
Who are Your people.
God save our nation,
End wars and strife.
South Africa, South Africa.