'White People Shouldn't Be Singing A Decolonised National Anthem'

It's an anthem "cleansed" of "Die Stem".

Some artists say that being in the business during times of protest and unrest means you cannot be a bystander. In South Africa, the Fees Must Fall Movement has led to few artists breaking the silence.

Koketso "KK" Poho, chair of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) student command at Wits University and a member of Blk Thought Music band, recognised this and used his talent to work on what has now been dubbed the anthem of the Fees Must Fall Movement. Earlier this year, the 22-year-old from Dobsonville was at the commemoration of the "Wits 7" — students who died in a car accident on their way from Limpopo. Poho was among those in the crowd when a choir sang "Nkosi Sikeleli' Afrika".

The first few lyrics were the same but there was an added verse and the melody was different. There was also no Afrikaans and English, like in the current national anthem. The choir sang the song in isiZulu and Shona.

"I don't know, it just captured me. I don't know if I have the words to describe it you know but it was a very strong feeling. For the next couple of days, I kept on singing it, repeating it and obviously internalising it — the particular spirit that is there you know," Poho said about what he felt when he heard the song at the commemoration.

Poho had no idea he was listening to The Mighty Seventh Day Adventist Student Movement (SDASM) Choir. One member, Esther Bhosha, a second-year economic science student, taught the song to the choir. She heard it at a church camp in Zimbabwe. The group introduced the song in isiZulu, and then translated it to Shona.

"I wish I composed it but I don't actually know who did," she said.

Bhosha said seeing the song transform and become the anthem for the student movement has warmed her heart.

"I thought it's the kind of song sung during the struggle. I think it's an outcry when people are feeling oppressed and need to unite," Bhosha said.

The song came at a crucial time in South Africa where debates on the removal of parts of "Die Stem", the apartheid-era anthem, dominated the news media for a short while. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), included this as part of its demands of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA) during coalition negotiations. The EFF has sung the anthem as composed by Enoch Sontonga, Samuel Mqhayi and Moses Mankanyi.

"We were cleansed [of] in essence the national anthem, of "Die Stem" — an anthem of racist white people who had for so many years oppressed us. It then sufficed to say it is a decolonised national anthem."

After singing it to himself for a couple of days, Poho shared the song with his band. They jammed and changed the song so it would be more suitable in a revolutionary space.

"We said: 'No, it sounds sad — it sounds like it is coming from a victim. So let us maybe give it an aggressive bass that will back it.' So comrades started, we harmonised there and even because I'm not isiZulu, my pronunciation was not particularly good so they workshopped me on that," Poho said with a smile.

One word is different too. The Fallists replaced the line Noma sekunzima emhlabeni/ sihlukunyezwa kabuhlungu, with Noma sekunzima emhlabeni/ sihlukunyezwa ngamabhunu.

Ukuhlukenyezwa (sihlukunyezwa) means to be bothered or abused. In the first version, it speaks of painful abuse. In the second, it means to be abused by white people.

"The roots of our oppression, stem from white supremacy and land dispossession," Poho said of the importance of changing the word.

Most people first heard the song the day of the failed General Assembly at Wits University. It was on this day that fellow Fallist, Mcebo Dlamini, called Poho onto stage to sing the "Decolonised National Anthem".

"Mcebo named it on the spot" Poho laughed. "And maybe this is what is amazing about the whole movement. [Because decolonisation has become our language], things happen spontaneously. So everything that we rid of whiteness, we totally reimagine. It's how we see things," he said.

"Those things are a problem of tribes and we are black cause in the eyes that matters, in the eyes of the world, no one cares that you're xhosa, you're still black. And whether you're rich or poor, or whether you're a light skinned black person or dark skinned black person, scruffy hair, curly hair, you're still black right?"

Poho said removing the lines from "Die Stem" was part of a cleansing and reinforcing the essence of the anthem, which speaks of Africa being saved.

"We were cleansed [of] in essence the national anthem, of Die Stem — an anthem of racist white people who had for so many years oppressed us. It then sufficed to say it is a decolonised national anthem," he said.

There has however been criticism of the song because it is only in isiZulu and isiXhosa. The Sesotho part was removed, while languages such as Tshivenda and Xitsonga have still been left out. Even the Shona translation sung by the SDASM choir is no longer included.

Poho said while he welcomed the criticism, he was of the view that revolutionary songs were ever changing and that the song belonged to all black people who sang it.

"I don't think there is a form of ownership to the song. I think just like all revolutionary songs, they belong to the people that sing them and they belong to the generations to which they are passed. And I think it is possible to add Sesotho or Setswana," he said.

Poho does not subscribe to language and cultural categories. He believes in black consciousness as an ideology, and that is all he identifies as.

"In the eyes of the world, no one cares that you're isiXhosa, you're still black. And whether you're rich or poor, or whether you're a light skinned black person or dark skinned black person, scruffy hair, curly hair, you're still black right?" he said.

Poho is happy that this has started a conversation and believes that ultimately artists are meant to encourage social discourse. In this case, he believes a conversation about how we see ourselves in our separate language and cultural groups is important.

"It exposes us as a country also. This is what I meant by it created a conversation right? That there is that tribalism we need to deal with. Which was colonially imposed obviously," Poho said.

Decolonisation has been the language of the movement, as Poho said, but much confusion and debate exists around what the term really means for each space the movement dominates. To Poho, decolonisation is about changing how black people are viewed in the world.

"We are not saying we want to go back to the Africa where sigqoke ibheshu and we are still walking around with spears on top of the lion or whatsoever the case may be. We are just saying that we want to rid ourselves from the shackles of colonialism, as Steve Biko says."

Colonialism, white supremacy and capitalism are some of the systems decolonisation seeks to remove.

Part of the song being decolonised is that white people should not be singing it, said Poho.

"It's offensive for a white person to sing a revolutionary song because they are not in struggle with those people. It's offensive for a white person to even give you sympathy, because they are acknowledging that you are not equal to them. That thing must stop," he said.


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