This day on 18 April 1905, Enoch Sontonga, the young choirmaster and photographer who composed the iconic Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika died. He was only 32.
While alive not many people really knew who Enoch Sontonga was, or that his legacy and words would impact so many people, his composition becoming part of the national anthem of South Africa. Unfortunately there is not much information available in regard to the early life of Sontonga, only stories that have been retold, as well as his own words and humble dreams put down on paper and turned into songs that are still sung today. Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica became an iconic song in the history of South Africa, bringing the nation together, as Sontonga had always hoped.
What is known about Enoch Sontonga is that he was born in Uitenhage, a city just outside of Port Elizabeth, in the Eastern Cape Province. It is estimated that he was born in the year 1873 and attended the Lovedale Institution where he studied to become a teacher. After he completed his training he took a position at a Methodist Mission School that was located in Nancefield, situated just outside of Johannesburg. Here he met his wife, Diana Mgqibisa, who was a minister’s daughter. Together they had one son. Sontonga also became an accomplished photographer and a choirmaster.
Seeing the suffering of the people around him touched Sontonga deeply and led to him beginning to write poems the he later wrote music for. He wrote Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica in 1897, at the age of twenty-four. It was written as a prayer to ask God to bless the country and its people. Samuel Mqhayi later wrote seven more verses for the song. Sontonga and his choir toured Johannesburg and Kwa-Zulu Natal and sang the song wherever they performed. Other choirs caught onto the song and also began to sing it, with it being played in public for the first time in 1899.
Sontonga passed away in 1905, and his gravesite in Braamfontein was only recently discovered. He passed away at the young age of thirty-two. Choirs kept requested permission from his widow to sing his songs and it was said that she sold the rights to Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica. She passed away in 1929.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica became a pan-African liberation anthem and was later adopted as the national anthem of five countries in Africa including Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia and Zimbabwe after independence. Zimbabwe and Namibia have since adopted new national anthems. The song’s melody is currently used as the national anthem of Tanzania and the national anthem of Zambia; and since 1997, a portion of the national anthem of South Africa.
In Xhosa, the words to the song that immortalized Enoch Sontonga are as follows:
Nkosi, sikelel’ iAfrika
Yizwa imithandazo yethu
Nkosi sikelela, Thina lusapholwayo
Yehla Moya, Yehla Moya,
Yehla Moya Oyingcwele
The English translation is as follows:
Lord, bless Africa
May her horn rise high up
Hear Thou our prayers And bless us.
Descend, O Spirit
Descend, O Holy Spirit.