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Zambia’s national anthem: a history

Zambia’s national anthem: a history

Enoch Sontonga, composer of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika
Enoch Sontonga, composer of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

Zambia’s national anthem: a history

A national anthem is a patriotic song adopted by a country as an expression of national identity. It is usually in the form of a song or hymn of praise that evokes and acclaims the history, traditions or struggles of a nation or its people. Most countries in the world have a national anthem, as does Zambia, used during official state functions and to express solidarity and patriotism.

The English version of Zambia’s national anthem begins “Stand and sing of Zambia, proud and free.” It has also been translated into various Zambian languages. The tune is taken from the hymn ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika’ (God Bless Africa), composed by a South African, Enoch Sontonga, in 1897.

Enoch Mankayi Sontonga, a Xhosa, was born in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, in 1873. He was a teacher, as well as a choirmaster and photographer. He composed the first verse and chorus of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika in 1897, using the tune ‘Aberystwyth’ originally composed by Joseph Parry in 1879. (‘Aberystwyth’ is probably better known as ‘Jesus, lover of my soul,’ a hymn written by Charles Wesley to Joseph Parry’s music. It does not sound much like Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.)  Xhosa poet Samuel Mqhavi later wrote a further seven verses.

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was first sung in public in 1899 at the ordination of a Methodist minister. Solomon Plaatje, a writer and founding member of the ANC, was the first to have the song recorded in London in 1923. Rev. John Dube’s Ohlange Zulu Choir popularised the hymn at concerts, and it became a popular church hymn. It started being used at political meetings and was adopted by the African National Congress as its official closing anthem in 1925, becoming a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement.

The hymn’s popularity spread to other countries and throughout southern Africa it became associated with nationalist movements, a pan-African liberation anthem which was later adopted as the national anthem of five countries – South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania, Namibia and Zimbabwe, after their independence from colonialism.

‘Ishe Komborera Africa’ is the Shona version of God Bless Africa and was Zimbabwe's first national anthem, adopted after gaining independence in 1980. Zimbabwe and Namibia have since adopted new national anthems. The tune is still used for Tanzania’s national anthem, ‘Mungu ibariki Afrika.’

In 1997 South Africa adopted a joint national anthem combining parts of N'kosi Sikelel iAfrica and ‘Die Stem van Suid Afrika’ (The Call of South Africa), which were respectively the anthems of the non-white and white communities under apartheid. The official lyrics contain a mixture of Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English.

When Zambia decided to adopt the liberation song as its national anthem in 1964 there was a decision to have new, appropriate words put to the music. A competition was held to compose words for the new anthem. No one entry was considered acceptable in its entirety, but the sentiments and themes of several entries were used in the final composite version. The six authors whose entries were of particular value and who were awarded prizes were: Mr G Ellis of Lusaka, Mr E S Musonda of Kasama, Mr J M S Lichilana of Lusaka, Mrs I Lowe of Luanshya, Mr J Sajiwandani of Luanshya and Mrs R J Seal of Lusaka.

So the Zambian anthem has evolved from the work of several different musical and lyrics composers, but its message is clear – that we are proud of the country and we stand together in unity, strong and free.

The National Anthem of Zambia

Stand and sing of Zambia, proud and free,

Land of work and joy in unity, 

Victors in the struggle for the right, 

We've won freedom's fight. 
All one, strong and free. 

Africa is our own motherland, 

Fashion'd with and blessed by God's good hand, 

Let us all her people join as one,

Brothers under the sun. 

All one, strong and free. 

One land and one nation is our cry, 

Dignity and peace 'neath Zambia's sky,

Like our noble eagle in its flight, 

Zambia-praise to thee. 

All one, strong and free. 

Chorus (Sung after the third verse only)

Praise be to God, 

Praise be, praise be, praise be, 

Bless our great nation, 

Zambia, Zambia, Zambia, 

Free men we stand

Under the flag of our land, 

Zambia, praise to thee. 

All one, strong and free.

(Usually only the first verse is sung, followed by the chorus)

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 13, June 2013)

Read more on Zambian history from the latest issue:
Rich symbolism in Zambia’s heraldry (ZT, Issue 13, June 2013)