They’re playing our song (again)

I arrived in South Africa from Botswana in the heady days of the rainbow nation. Everything was about nation building and creating unified national symbols.

But in the small and mostly white town of Tzaneen where I landed in the then Northern Transvaal, people’s mind-sets had not progressed quite so enthusiastically. Black and white children played separately; we got the choice of learning Afrikaans or Afrikaans as a second language.

My first full year of school in 1997 coincided with the creation of the new hybrid national anthem: Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Our history teacher gathered her class around the projector, and used her black marker to write out the words.

A CD went into her portable player, and the instrumental version got us started. It was compulsory; we had to learn the anthem. The following week it would be sung at assembly in the quad of our school, the national flag raised.

This process seems pretty ingrained and I sang it all the way through my school life – like most children in the world. In high school, detention was threatened for pupils who did not stand and belt out the anthem.

Being patriotic
When the likes of Forbes carry out surveys and publish annual lists of the most patriotic nations, the top ones never seem to have anything in common, so you have the nationalisation-prone Venezuela ranked alongside the capitalist United States. South Africa always ranks in the top 10.

National leaders blame moral degeneration and missing values for the country’s woes. Former sports minister Fikile Mbalula criticised sports teams for not being able to sing the anthem. This was one of the reasons they were not playing to their potential.

“These people must understand what it means to be patriotic,” he said at the launch of a sports development initiative in Carolina in Mpumalanga.

This week Communications Minister Faith Muthambi told Parliament that South Africans could be waking up to a rendition of the national anthem on television.

This comes after her department signed a memorandum of understanding with the SABC. She said a new communication strategy had been developed that would deal with issues of social cohesion and moral regeneration.

The minister said this would “address the issue of the national anthem, to bring patriotism so that we are proud of who we are”. ANC MP Lindiwe Maseko proposed that the anthem be broadcast twice a day because South Africans were not patriotic enough.

Swearing allegiance
There is no requirement to know the anthem, and the only time people swear an oath of allegiance (they in fact only sign a form) it is when they are outsiders becoming South African citizens.

Then, upholding and respecting the Constitution is the central promise, with people committing themselves to the “furtherance of the ideals and principles contained therein”. It is a promise to a greater social good; in other countries the oath and anthem are dedicated to a person.

In several countries – from Jamaica to New Zealand – the oath is sworn to whichever monarch happens to be ensconced on the British throne (though Britain is in the midst of its own debate about what it means to be patriotic).

Besides swearing an oath, there are no other requirements of fealty. Right-leaning political parties have cited cases of British citizens who cannot – and do not want to – speak English. The state has tabled proposals to link social security and other benefits to set requirements for being “British”, such as speaking the English language.

Many anthems cement age-old rivalries. The Algerian We Pledge, written during its war of independence from France, has these lines: “When we spoke/ none listened to us/ So we have taken the noise of gunpowder as our rhythm/ And the sound of machine guns as our melody.”

Others are purposely apolitical. Kosovo’s anthem Europe has no words because its government did not want to offend Serbs by having a song in Albanian.

Singing the anthem
Current World Cup host Brazil’s anthem is dedicated to how beautiful their country is. Their rendition is more of a love song than a patriotic proclamation of fealty.

In more militaristic states, such as Pakistan, children learn from a young age to sing the Sacred Land and salute the state flag. China’s March of the Volunteers is decidedly on-theme: “The great Communist Party leads us in continuing the Long March/ Millions with but one heart towards a communist tomorrow.”

Singing the anthem may not be compulsory in most countries, but many a sportsperson has fallen foul of an angry public for not singing the anthem. Sports events are probably the only time adults are in large groups when the anthem is played, and this singing is led by the players lining up to perform for their country. 

When French footballer Karim Benzema refused to sing La Marseillaise he was castigated by political parties, and labelled an “insult” to the nation.

And although the US constantly tops the charts as the world’s most patriotic country, its lawmakers think otherwise. In Indiana, a senator introduced a Bill that would set “performance standards” for the singing of the anthem. Failure to do so would lead to a $25 fine. Several similar initiatives have been tried, but enforced anthem singing has not come to pass.

Unifying symbol
The world’s most enthusiastic anthem singers seem to be the Bangladeshis. They hold the world record for flying the largest national flag, and are trying to set a record for the most people singing an anthem at one time. Singing it is compulsory at assembly time; it is sung before films.

And although the hybrid South African anthem has come under repeated criticism – mainly for its inclusion of the apartheid anthem Die Stem – it is a unifying symbol. Nations need their symbols to bring people together, but they cannot be used as magic solutions to societal problems.

Andy Rice, a branding and advertising consultant, said making people associate with their country was quite simple – in theory. “It’s not rocket science. You tell the world what your nation stands for, and you keep to that promise.”

People would then trust and care about the brand, he said. What was difficult was ensuring that all work to keep to those promises.

Rice said South Africa’s brand was all about possibility; if it was not achieved, people would stop trusting the brand. “This is not new. When TV started in South Africa the anthem was played in the evening.”

Show of respect

The education department, in its guidelines for schools on how to sing the national anthem, says: “[The] anthem demonstrates the ability of South Africans to compromise in the interests of unity. Compromise means we can give and take in the process of finding the middle ground.”

It says that, when the national anthem is sung, all present should show respect:

• Stand up straight and pay attention;

• Stand still; 

• Do not laugh or talk; and 

• Civilians should take off their hats

PW Botha wagged his finger and banned us in 1988 but we stood firm. We built a reputation for fearless journalism, then, and now. Through these last 35 years, the Mail & Guardian has always been on the right side of history.

These days, we are on the trail of the merry band of corporates and politicians robbing South Africa of its own potential.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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