Sontonga, voice of a continent Mystery: Those who wanted to honor the man whose song became the anthem of four African nations first had to hunt down the sparse details of his life and death.


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- His song has been sung by millions of people for almost a century now, but until recently little was known about Enoch Sontonga, not even that his body lay buried somewhere beneath a wide swath of grass in the Braamfontein cemetery here.

Sontonga wrote "Nkosi Sikilel' iAfrika," a musically simple but complexly moving hymn that is now the national anthem of four African nations. His native land, South Africa, adopted it in 1994, joining Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

But for many South Africans, "Nkosi Sikilel' iAfrika" had been their real anthem since at least 1925, when the African National Congress adopted it. It was sung at the first meeting of the ANC's predecessor, the South African Native National Congress, in 1912.

It was sung during the decades-long struggle against apartheid. And when they hear its first notes, many people still instinctively raise a clenched fist in salute.

It is a peaceful prayer that rallied many to an often violent struggle.

"It is an unusual thing to have a national anthem that is not jingoistic, bloodthirsty, 'Let's give them hell, God, you are on our side,' " says retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner.

"It's a haunting thing that you should be praying not just for your country, but for your continent, a prayer calling for God to pour out his holy spirit on your people, so it is God's glory, not the glory of your country, that should be acknowledged," he said.

"It's been incredible. We have sung it at some of our lowest moments in our history and it seemed to touch some very sensitive nerve ends and given us the capacity to be able to hope against hope."

But as the fame of "Nkosi Sikilel' iAfrika" spread, its composer faded into obscurity. Sontonga was largely forgotten, until the song's elevation to the status of anthem.

A university professor in Johannesburg wrote a newspaper article, telling of once hearing that Sontonga was buried in the Braamfontein cemetery.

A composer in Cape Town, Hal Shaper, saw the country's white rugby team struggle to sing the anthem and published a sheet music version that included a phonetic rendering of the Xhosa words as well as an English translation.

But in researching a short biography of Sontonga, Shaper became frustrated by the lack of information. Thinking that Sontonga should be honored, he began the search for his grave, a search that became an obsession with twists and turns that made Shaper and others feel they were being guided by an unseen force.

What was known was that Sontonga had died at the age of 32, but on an unknown date. It was listed only as being between 1897 and 1905.

He was born in Uitenhage, a town in the Eastern Cape region of what would become South Africa. A church choirmaster, he married the daughter of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church. He was trained as a teacher.

Shaper found it significant that Sontonga was a member of an independent African church. These churches were, in effect, early declarations by colonized Africans of their independence from European institutions and were direct precursors of the political institutions that fought for liberation.

At some point, Sontonga went to Johannesburg to teach at a Methodist mission school in the nearby community of Nancefield. A half-century later Nancefield was the middle of Soweto, the largest of South Africa's black townships.

Sontonga wrote songs for his students and his church choir in a notebook that he often lent to friends. Somewhere along the line, it was lost.

"Nkosi Sikilel' iAfrika" is the only one of his songs to survive. Written in 1897, it had its first public performance two years later at the ordination of a Reverend Boweni, a Methodist minister.

The song became popular throughout black South Africa. A poet wrote seven more verses to go with Sontonga's one.

It was recorded in 1923 by Solomon Plaatje, an early fighter for black liberation. It was published in 1927, included in a Presbyterian hymn book and a Xhosa poetry text for schools.

"The tune is really very simple, almost like a bugle call," Shaper says, though in the voices of a packed stadium or community hall, it becomes a rich musical tapestry of counterpoint and call and response.

"There were no real antecedents in either African or the choral church music Sontonga would have been familiar with."

Shaper asked officials to see if an Enoch Sontonga was listed among those buried in the Braamfontein cemetery. There was no one by that name. He then asked them to check simply Enoch, as many blacks were listed by only their first name.

"They told me they found one, buried on April 19, 1905, but that he was only 32," Shaper says. "'I knew we had found him."

At the same time, the secretary of the National Monuments Council began searching newspapers archives for an obituary. Though she read not a word of Xhosa, a small item on the second page she looked at jumped out.

It was Sontonga's obituary, revealing that he had died on April 18, 1905, after complaining of abdominal pains, predicting his death and asking his wife to take his picture. She refused.

That was only the beginning of the search for his grave.

The portion of the cemetery for nonwhites had been flooded not long after Sontonga was buried. And then it was, in effect, abandoned.

Trees overtook its 10,000 graves. No headstones remained. In the 1960s, grasses replaced the trees.

With Sontonga's plot number in hand, Alan Buff of the Johannesburg parks department began the search for the grave. The plan of the section where Sontonga was buried was missing. Buff became another obsessed by Sontonga.

Working long hours among old records, he found one key document rolled up inside a paper that had not been touched for more than 50 years. Then the arrangement of graves -- one row for children, one for adults -- was mapped.

An aerial infrared photograph showed where pathways went. Excavations confirmed the basic plan of the graves and that an adult grave was in the spot thought to be Sontonga's, though no marker was found.

"I am certain we found it," Buff says. "I really enjoyed helping to honor a real South African who contributed so much to our country and to all of Africa."

So last year a memorial was dedicated above the site of Sontonga's grave.

At the dedication, President Nelson Mandela eulogized Sontonga as "an architect of this ode to joy and pain, a builder of this nation just born."

"With your inspiration," he said, "we believed we could move mountains."

Sharper composed the tribute on the monument. He says he felt guided as he decided on the words now engraved in the granite:

A spark of God's own light, he died too young

Wept for then, honored now

And forever in the voices of this nation, sung.


Lord, bless Africa

May her horn rise high up

Hear thou our prayers

Lord bless us.

Lord, bless Africa

May her horn rise high up

Hear thou our prayers

Lord bless us

Your family


Descend, O spirit

Descend, O holy spirit

Lord bless us,

Your family

Pub Date: 1/03/97

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