South Africa’s rainbow anthem

Tom Nevin

The cultural mix in South Africa is unique in the world. It is not so much that it is composed of many different strands, but that all these strands have been woven together into the ‘rainbow nation’ ribbon that holds this country’s people together.

There’s something to be said for being the odd man out in a world of sameness and repetition. The title of the 1969 film sums it up perfectly: If it’s Tuesday, This must be Belgium. This light-hearted portrayal of packaged leisure showed tourism as a whirl of look-alike airports, hotel rooms and sightseeing buses.

South Africa didn’t strive to be as culturally different as it is, it just turned out that way. It is history’s fault, actually, and to understand it a little better, all you have to do is listen to the national anthem. Like none other on earth, the words and music encapsulate in a few minutes the cultural soul and national essence of South Africa.

South Africa is a polyglot of 11 official languages, nine of them in the vernacular, one imported (English) and the other locally manufactured (Afrikaans). That in itself puts the country in a unique cultural niche; not because it has 11 languages, but because they’re all recognised as important to the cultural mix.

Of course, this presents all sorts of bureaucratic challenges, but that is a discussion for another time. Right now, we’re concerned with the foundations and brickwork of one of the most culturally colourful and diverse nations on earth. Did this come about because of its relatively recent democratic rebirth and the desire to create a truly rainbow society? The problem became more kaleidoscopic for the writing of the anthem because at least three indigenous tongues wanted representation. This led to the anthem’s language constituency of the vernacular (Xhosa, Zulu and SeSotho), Afrikaans and English, and it goes like this:

Lord bless Africa Let Africa’s horn be raised (Xhosa) Listen to our prayers Lord bless us, we are the family of Africa (Zulu) Lord bless our nation Stop wars and sufferings Save it, save it, our nation The nation of South Africa, South Africa (Sesotho) From the blue of our heavens From the depths of our seas Over our everlasting mountains Where the cliffs give answer (Afrikaans) Sounds the call to come together And united we shall stand Let us live and strive for freedom In South Africa our land (English)

The anthem is the tip of South Africa’s cultural iceberg and, believe it or not, most South Africans are adept at these linguistic calisthenics and can sing them flawlessly. Sportsmen and women of all colour, persuasion and athletic prowess are lusty in their renditions of the anthem wherever they represent their country. Schoolchildren know it off pat from an early age. It is the national heritage in a neat multilingual package and the tuneful keeper of the culture.

Could other nations argue that their anthems are as culturally pertinent? Not really, because none other recognises as uncritically as South Africa’s the historical, social and political fabric of its people.

The anthem addresses first the Xhosa and Zulu peoples whose heritages are closely aligned. They were part of the Inguni migration from central East Africa’s Great Lakes region that began about a thousand years ago.

On reaching southeastern Africa, this human stream split, with roughly half deciding to settle in the lush and hilly country bordering on the Indian Ocean in the area known today as KwaZulu-Natal. The rest, to be known as the Xhosa, followed the coast to the southwest, finally settling in today’s Eastern Cape area. Although of the same stock, the Zulu and the Xhosa have developed as two distinct nations, with cultures purely their own.

Their habitats best define their cultural differences. The Xhosa choose to live separately from their neighbours, and the hills are dotted with white-walled dwellings, the inhabitants attending to their affairs wrapped in bright orange blankets.

The Zulu people, on the other hand, prefer stockaded homesteads of a number of highly decorated, thatched rondavels. More often than not their cattle are kept in kraals within the settlement walls. Even going about their daily business, Zulus are turned out as if going to war.

The Dutch and English settlers arrived and largely lived apart; the English established towns and industries, the Afrikaners planted their agrarian roots. A war at the turn of the 18th century ended with the English claiming sovereignty over the territory and ruling it from London. It became a union and was governed by English-speaking whites.

Cultural mementos of this era abound across South Africa, from entire towns to frequently encountered statues of British icons. In 1949, the Afrikaans-aligned National Party won the whites-only general election and ruled a strictly segregated nation until full democracy was won in 1994.

The impact of the Afrikaans peoples’ culture is many and varied, epitomised by the Voortrekker Monument outside Pretoria. The imposing edifice commemorates the Great Trek of 1835-46 by thousands of Afrikaans farming folk who travelled north from the Cape in ox-drawn wagons to escape British rule. Place names, regions and geological features in their thousands are a reminder of the Afrikaners’ cultural legacy.

With this multicultural, multilingual, multi-ethnic foundation, a rainbow nation has emerged, and dozens of nationalities from the world over have found their place under the South African sun. Perhaps visitors to South Africa should rewrite that old film title and have it read: If this is a bright and sunny day in a land of vibrant culture, fun and nice people, it must be South Africa, and I don’t want to go home just yet.


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International