South African Unity Chants

You certainly remember this chant sung by the Bafana Bafana’s fans during the Football World Cup en 2010 : Shosholoza. This song, which became popular a few years earlier during the 1995 Rugby World Cup and is classed by some South Africans as the second national anthem, has the power to be moving, while giving a feeling of strength when sung by many voices, and so much more when sung by an entire stadium !

Shosholoza by the University of Cape Town Choir (2014)

Shosholoza’, which means ‘go forward’ in the Ndebele1 language, evokes the courage. Zimbabwean migrants sang it in the steam train that brought them to work in the South African gold and diamond mines in the late 19th century. Later, Zulu workers took up the song to generate rhythm and give themselves courage. Nelson Mandela told that he sang it while he was working as a prisoner on Robben Island. Nowadays, Shosholoza has become a hymn sung in many sporting events, resonating as a chant of encouragement, motivation and, of course, union.

Other songs, which are less known to the world but are part of South African history and culture, have a more political origin. During the dark years of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister, recognized as ‘The Architect of Apartheid’, was the subject of a protest song composed by Vuyisile Mini2, Ndodemnyama we Werwoerd (Be aware, Werwoerd), which became one of the most popular songs in the country and was sung, among others, by Miriam Makeba, international voice of the anti-apartheid struggle. Lyrics are tougher than the melody lets it sound. They ring out like a warning: ‘Watch out, Verwoerd, here comes the black man, your days are over’.

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Listen to “Ndodemnyama we Verwoerd by Myriam Makeba”

Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba sang “Ndodemnyama, we Verwoerd” in the 60’s

In 1955, while South Africa was being divided into racial zones, Africans were chased out of Sophiatown, one of the oldest hubs of Johannesburg, so a white suburb could be built in its place. This destruction is the origin of the song ‘Meadowlands’, in reference to the name of the township where the evictees were relocated. Through the vehicle of a lively tune and its ambiguous lyrics, Meadowlands might look like a cheerful song. Actually, it expresses the distress felt by Sophiatown inhabitants facing the evacuation and the destruction of their houses.

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Listen to “Meadowlands” by African Jazz Pioneers with Dolly Rathebe”

Pictures from movie

Pictures from movie “Come Back Africa” (Lionel Rogosin – 1959), a portrait of Johannesburg during apartheid

Finally, if we had to choose a chant that symbolises the best unity, the South African anthem is certainly the strongest representation. Since 1997, the national hymn combines ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ (God Bless Africa), and ‘Die Stem van Suid-Afrika’ (The Voice of South Africa).
‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ is a religious song created in the late 19th century and chosen afterwards by ANC as its official anthem, whereas ‘Die Stem van Suid-Afrika’ is the South African former anthem, particularly during Apartheid. We can’t find a more beautiful union and forgiveness symbol than the fusion of the two chants which were, during the Apartheid years, the hymns of two opposite movements.
The fact that South Africans took up lyrics of a chant which was once their enemies’ one, is not only beautiful and brave, but it is a founding act of the post-apartheid South Africa.

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Listen to The South African Anthem

Nelson Mandela

1) Ndebele : South african and zimbabwean ethnic group
2) Vuyisile Mini was a composer, singer and an ANC’s activist, executed in 1964 by apartheid power.

Source : Michela E. Vershbow ‘s article : « The Sounds of Resistance: The Role of Music in South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Movement »

Read and see more:
« Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony » – A documentary by Lee Hirsch (2002)

By Muriel Romero

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