Enoch Mankayi Sontonga was born in Uitenhage, Eastern Province (now Eastern Cape) around 1873 as a member of the Xhosa-speaking Mpinga clan of the Tembu tribe.
He trained as a teacher at the Lovedale Training College after which he was sent to a Methodist mission school in Nancefield, near Johannesburg in 1896. He taught here for nearly eight years.
Sontonga was the choirmaster at his school, as well as an amateur photographer. He married Diana Mgqibisa, the daughter of a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who passed away in 1929. They had a son.
Sontonga was a distinguished and productive poet and, on occasions, preached in his church. As a choirmaster in his school, Enoch Sontonga composed the first two stanzas of democratic South Africa’s anthem in 1897. Although initially intended for his school choir, “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika” was first performed in 1899 at an ordination service of Reverend Mboweni, the first Tsonga Methodist Priest to be ordained.
In 1901, John Langalibalele Dube founded the Ohlange Institute. The choir at this institute popularised the anthem. Additional verses to the anthem were added by the renowned IsiXhosa national poet, Samuel E.K. Mqhayi. “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika” was first recorded on 16 October 1923, in London, accompanied by Sylvia Colenso (The daughter of Bishop Colenso of Natal) on the piano.
In 1927, the whole song was published in the form of a pamphlet by The Lovedale Press. The anthem was also included in the Presbyterian Hymn book (Incwadi yamaCulo aseRhabe) in 1929, an isiXhosa poetry book and in Umthetheli waBantu (an isiXhosa newspaper) on 11 June 1927.
The Ohlange Institute’s choir offered a rendition of the song after a closing prayer at the South African Native National Congress’ (later African National Congress) meeting in January 1912.
By 1925 “Nkosi Sikelel ‘iAfrika” had become the official song of the African National Congress (ANC) and was also sung during the British Royal visit in 1947. In the 1960s, Zambia adopted the song as its national anthem.
In 1994 “Nkosi Sikelel ‘iAfrika” and “Die Stem van Suid Afrika”, the old South African anthem, became our official national song.
On 24 September 1996, Heritage Day, the grave of Enoch Sontonga was declared a national monument. Former President Nelson Mandela unveiled a memorial that was erected on the site. At the ceremony, President Nelson Mandela awarded the Order of Meritorious Service (Gold Category) posthumously to Sontonga for his service to our country. His granddaughter, Mrs Ida Rabotape, accepted the award.
“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika,” is a prayer for God’s blessing on the land and all its people. A well-known Xhosa poet, Samuel Mqhayi, wrote seven additional stanzas for the song.
“Nkosi sikelel’ iAfika”. called on God to bless Africa. It was adopted as Zambia’s national anthem in 1960. Tanzania (then Tanganyika) translated it into Swahili, “Mungu ibariki Afrika”, also adopting it as its national anthem. It was also widely sung in the Shona language in Zimbabwe.
As a spiritual song, “Nkosi sikelela” invokes the Holy Spirit, “Yihla Moya”. This fuses Protestantism with African traditions of cleansing. It carried a religious, spiritual, musical and traditional symbiosis.
The progression of Sontonga’s song into being a National Anthem took various stages. It was also merged with a piece written by JC Langenhoven in May 1918. Langenhoven wrote “Die Stem”, which was later musically composed by Reverend ML de Villiers in 1921. The song (Die Stem) was firstly sung on the 31st of May in 1928. The SeSotho version of the national anthem was written by Moses Mphahlele in 1942. In 1952, the English version of the national anthem, “The Call of South Africa” was endorsed for official use as the national anthem. On 2 May 1957, the apartheid government declared “Die Stem” as the National Anthem. As this was done, Sontonga’s “Nkosi sikelela” had reached out to a greater number of the oppressed masses.
Then State President, Nelson Mandela proclaimed on 20 April 1994 that, in terms of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, the Republic would have two National Anthems. It would be “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika” and “The Call of South Africa” (Die Stem). Common ground was reached to combine both versions of the national anthem into one National Anthem.
Sontonga lived in Pimville, Soweto, Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng). He passed away on the 18th of April in 1905, at the age of 32. Imvo ZabaNtsundu, an IsiXhosa newspaper reported on the 27 June 1905, that “he was not sick that time. He however suffered at times from stomach ache to the extent that he would predict that these were his last day on this earth”. He was buried in the “non-Whites” section of the Braamfontein Cemetery in Johannesburg.