Sontonga, a Xhosa, he was born in Uitenhage in the eastern Cape in 1873. He trained as a teacher at the Lovedale Institution and was sent to the Methodist Mission School in Nancefield south-west of Johannesburg. He married Diana Mgqibisa and had a son.
A choirmaster and photographer, Sontonga wrote the first verse and chorus of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika when he was 24, one of many songs he wrote for his pupils. Later the same year, he composed the music. The song 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.
Sontonga’s choir sang the song around Johannesburg and KwaZulu-Natal, and other choirs followed them. The song was published in a local newspaper in 1927, and was included in the Presbyterian Xhosa hymn book as well as a Xhosa poetry book for schools.
Sontonga wrote his songs down in an exercise book, which was lent out to other choirmasters and eventually became the property of a family member, Boxing Granny. She never missed a boxing match in Soweto, hence the nickname. She died at about the time Sontonga’s grave was declared a heritage site in 1996, but the book was never found.
On 8 January 1912, at the first meeting of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), the forerunner of the African National Congress (ANC), seven years after Sontonga’s death in 1905, it was sung after the closing prayer. Solomon Plaatje, a founding member of the ANC, and a writer, had the song recorded in London in 1923. In 1925 the ANC adopted the song as the closing anthem for their meetings.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika is the national anthem of Tanzania and Zambia and is also sung in Zimbabwe and Namibia.
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