History and heritage
Remembering Enoch SontongaEnoch Sontonga, a teacher and lay preacher from the Eastern Cape, died in obscurity in 1905 years ago, aged just 33. But he left an indelible legacy. His hymn, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika ("God Bless Africa"), went on to become Africa's most famous anthem of black struggle against oppression. The Uitenhage-born choirmaster was honoured at a wreath-laying ceremony at Braamfontein Cemetery in Johannesburg on the 100 anniversary of his death in September 2005.
A prayer for God's blessingSontonga wrote the first verse and chorus of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, a prayer for God's blessing on the land and all its people, as a hymn for his school choir in 1897. Later in the same year, he composed the music. The famous song has since been reworked and adopted as South Africa's national anthem, translated into numerous African languages, including Swahili, and incorporated into the national anthem of Zambia, Tanzania and Namibia.
Searching for Enoch SontongaAn act of vandalism at Braamfontein Cemetery helped locate the grave of the man who wrote SA's national anthem, ending months of detective work by Johannesburg officials, archeologists and historians.
'Be aware of our heroes'Enoch Mankayi Sontonga, born in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape in 1873, was buried at Braamfontein Cemetery on 19 April 1905. At a ceremony in 2005 to mark the centenary of his death, then-Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan related how the authorities had struggled to piece together the life of the composer, relying on old newspapers, burial registers and other sources that gave contradictary clues to the location and year of Sontonga's death. Lamenting the loss of Sontonga's exercise book – in which, it is believed, he recorded many of his songs – Jordan appealed to the country's writers, artists and composers to deposit copies of their work with the National Archives, since "we all have the responsibility of preserving our heritage". Sontonga's exercise book was lent out to other choirmasters and eventually became the property of a family member, "Boxing Granny". (She never missed a boxing match in Soweto, hence the nickname.) She died at about the time Sontonga's grave was declared a heritage site in 1996, but the book was never found. "I wonder how many works we have lost as a country because the previous government did not care about the culture and history of black South Africa," Jordan said. "We need to be aware of our heroes so that we can develop as a people." Enoch Rabotapi, Sontonga's great grandson, said: "Some of us, the young generation, didn't attach any significance to his work, but then our grandmother made sure we knew of this wealth … of his contribution to the nation. She used to talk about it". "We feel proud of his contribution towards the well-being of our nation and Africa." SA.info reporter First published: 20 April 2005 Reviewed: 4 July 2013
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