“Morena baloo ke, na na sari steve, opec di say peeper lemur train yeah ho”. Sound familiar? Let’s try again “Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso, O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho”. The latter is the national anthem of South Africa, the former, Ard Matthew’s rendition of the national anthem, according to Daily Maverick writer Rebecca Davis. Whilst it might seem unbelievable, Davis’s take is not far from what South African’s saw and heard on their television screens a couple of weeks ago.
Ard Matthews, the front man of popular soft-rock band Just Jinjer saw himself the subject of public humiliation as a result of his shocking rendition of our country’s national anthem, at the announcement of the World Cup Springbok squad on the 23rd of August. His public blooper made him the favoured subject of the national peanut gallery, our ever-ready Twitterati , who submitted Matthews to their fiery wrath and incredibly sharp wit. But, the real issue here is not Ard Matthews – even if he did immortalise himself in the Ras-Dumisani-Hall-of-Infamy. The real issue is the fact that there are numerous Ards lurking in our midst, numerous South Africans who do not know the words to our anthem: be it those who regardless of race could not be bothered, or those who curiously murmur unintelligible sounds until they get to Die Stem, miraculously gaining booming voices and clarity that indeed comes “uit die blou”. Are we really a country that is Alive with Possibility ™ where we are all Proudly South African ™ and all believe that Simunye, We are One ™? With 11 official languages and celebrated diversity, the undeniable reality is that one of these languages takes primacy.
Revolutionary, philosopher and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon wrote that to speak a language is to assume a culture. It’s all too obvious that South Africans can speak the language of multiculturalism, but cannot really speak multiple languages – particularly African languages. We have been sold diversity, but we haven’t really bought it – even though it’s really nice to haul out during sports events like the World Cup, those rare and all too fleeting moments when people seem authentically Proudly South African. The school system is still largely based on English/Afrikaans bilingualism, with smatterings of Xhosa/Zulu/insert-other-African-language here and there, and South Africans in the minority are not really pushed out of their linguistic comfort zones. English is the language of capital. English is the language. Fullstop.
If the markers of nationalism and the measures of its success are the adoption of the national flag and anthem, then it is evident South Africa is not really “one nation” and that the rhetoric does not really fit the reality. To adopt the flag is easy; it’s there for us, pre-made and sold on match days and the like. But the national anthem requires us to go outside our comfort zone, not even requiring that we adopt an entire language, but that we show African languages the courtesy of learning the pronunciation of a few lines. Surely that cannot be asking much? Fanon ascribes “a basic importance to the phenomenon of language”, and it is all to true that how any grouping of people treats language tells us far more than what is said. If our treatment of the national anthem is much to go on, African languages still lack the respect that was apparently afforded to them circa 1994.
This is not to say that there aren’t the moments that the national anthem achieves its purpose. At a cricket game in Port Elizabeth last year, the Proteas were failing dismally under the pressure of the English bowling attack, when one person started singing the national anthem. Soon the unified voices of a crowd of thousands reverberated through St George’s Park Cricket Grounds – not because it was the start of the match, not because they had to, but because they wanted to, in a goose-bump inducing gesture that said “it does not matter if you are losing dismally, you are our boys, our national team, and this is our nation”.
South Africa a curious place to live in, a place where optimism and pessimism often share the same breath, and a place where we’re simultaneously confronted with and caught between the legacy of the past, and the hope for the future. But perhaps we need to really start living in the now, critically making sense of what it means to say “I am South African” without the clichéd rhetoric or resorting to pessimism. Perhaps, if we are really going to assume this South African culture, however amorphous and peculiar as it may seem, beyond Braai Days and 67 minute gestures, we can start by stepping out of our linguistic comfort zones and showing equal respect to all cultures and languages. Perhaps we can simply start by learning the lines to our anthem, and understanding what it means when we jointly sing Nkosi Sikeleli, beyond the simple meaning of the words, and towards an understanding of the colossal meaning of the gesture.