PRETORIA: South Africa’s haunting national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika (“God Save Africa”) was one of its most important new national symbols following the end of apartheid in 1994.

But a raging debate about it continues to divide many South Africans across racial lines — a jarring note for proponents of a new, united “Rainbow Nation.”

“If there is any new South Africa experiment that just has not worked, it is the musical concoction that we call our national anthem,” said columnist Mondli Makhanya in an opinion piece in the Sunday Times newspaper.

“The current anthem has outlived its usefulness, if it ever had one.”

Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika is sung in three languages, the first parts in Zulu and Sotho, two of the country’s largest African ethnic groups.

Then the song changes, swinging into a final verse of the country’s old national anthem Die Stem (“The Call”), the Afrikaans-language song of the white, Dutch-descended Afrikaners who ruled the country for decades and instituted the apartheid system of strict racial discrimination.

While some white South Africans hold Die Stem as an important symbol of their inclusion in the new South Africa, many black South Africans say it has no part in their new patriotic songbook.

“I don’t like Afrikaans, the language for me is the language of the oppressors in South Africa,” said Smanga Nyawo, a young soccer player at a junior football club in Pretoria.

WHOSE SONG? WHOSE LANGUAGE?: Linguistic struggles are nothing new in South Africa, which has 11 official languages enshrined in its constitution.

Widespread anger over forced school instruction in Afrikaans was a key element behind the 1976 Soweto riots, which many historians say marked the beginning of the end for white rule in the country.

South Africa’s new black rulers, led by Nelson Mandela, took office in 1994 set on reconciliation. To this end Mandela declared that both Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika and Die Stem would be joint national anthems.

In 1996 a shortened, combined version of the two was released as the new national song — and the discord began.

“Die Stem has an echo of humiliating memories to many black people, a sad reminder of the loss and indignity black people have suffered,” said Dan Habedi, general secretary of the Azanian Peoples Organization, historically one of the most vocal campaigners for black rights in the country.

Ironically, both anthems have roots in South Africa’s history.

Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika was long regarded as the national anthem by the oppressed black majority and sung frequently as act of resistance against the apartheid government.

Composed in 1897 by a Methodist teacher, the song’s popularity spread beyond South Africa’s borders. It has been translated and adopted into a number of other African languages, and is sung as the national anthem of both Zambia and Tanzania.

Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The call of South Africa), an Afrikaans poem set to music in 1921, is seen as a powerful expression of the Afrikaner legacy arising from the bitter experience of their 1899-1902 war with Britain.

“Die Stem celebrates the devotion, commitment and bravery of the Boers (Afrikaners)....As much as Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika was part of the struggle so is Die Stem,” said Peter van der Merwe, an Afrikaner arts student at the University of Pretoria.

In 1957, as the Afrikaner-dominated National Party tightened its control over the country, the government recognized Die Stem as the sole official anthem — which it remained until whites finally ceded power to majority rule in 1994.

HARD TO SING: Politics are not the only problem with South Africa’s national song. Some white South Africans, often accused of moving too slowly in learning the African languages of their compatriots, have trouble with the words.

Musical experts say the anthem is an unwieldy amalgamation of two distinctly different musical styles.

“From the musical point of view, the mood of the two songs is different...They don’t compliment each other, in melody and style,” said Gordon van der Spuy, a musician and actor.

Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo, a composer appointed by Mandela to merge the two, said the aim was to promote racial reconciliation rather than create great music.

While the debate continues, the government has said repeatedly that it has no plans to change the anthem.—Reuters

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