A little while ago I looked up the English translation (God Bless Africa) of N’kosi Sikelele, the national anthem of South Africa and Mungi ibariki Afrika, the national anthem of Tanzania. At independence it was also the anthems of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia until they adopted new ones: Zambia Stand and sing of Zambia; Zimbabwe Blessed be the land of Zimbabwe; Namibia Land of the Brave
The history of this hymn and its use as a national anthem seems to have raised interesting questions over copyright.
All the anthems seem to have been translated into multiple languages, the Zambian noted has having been written in English first and then translated. The South African anthem is currently sung in four languages (Xhosa, Zulu, English and Afrikaans), the first part Nkosi Sikelele having been written in Xhosa and then translated, the second part originating in Afrikaans and the third being an English variation of the original Afrikaans.
This raises some interesting questions with its banning by the Apartheid government: was it a hymn or a political statement? Siemon Allen challenges the banning in a fascinating summary of the use of the hymn. It is claimed that the hymn was first used as a protest song in 1919 with additional verses being added in 1927 by Samuel Mqhayi. Coplan and Jules-Rosette discuss its use in the liberation struggle.
What intrigued me were the topics covered by N’kosi Sikelele – they provide an insight into what was important to the authors and their communities at the time and surprisingly, these are still big topics today: Chiefs (leadership), public men, youth, land, wives, women, ministers (religious), agriculture, stock, land, education, unity.
Another interesting aspect links with wider discussions on the value of African languages and their being subordinated to English and French. Where there are multiple translations of the anthem, which is used at official national occasions and what is the reason for this? With so many language groups, how is unity developed? Or is it through the common tune that unity is achieved? One of my highlights was approaching a Tanzanian primary school during assembly when the children started singing the anthem. I might not have been able to join them in Swahili but I could in Xhosa and Zulu. And in solidarity we asked that ‘God Bless Africa’.