What’s a national anthem got to do with anything?

The singing of national anthems is an intrinsic part of international and professional sporting events around the world. Yet, the content and messages contained in the average anthem are rarely considered more than in passing. The recent decision by American Colin Kaepernick, a National Football League player, to remain seated or kneel during the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” to protest police brutality, marks a significant shift, fueling strong debates about its violent and racist lyrics.

The U.S. is not alone. The average European anthem also traces its origins to conquest or colonialism. For example, the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”, dreams that the “blood of the impure” will “irrigate our fields”. In South Africa, the national anthem is a confused mixture of two anthems, sung in four different languages, and includes portions of the Apartheid-era national anthem. Like in the U.S., it has also been called into question publicly.

After the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners in 1990 along with the unbanning of a range of political organizations, South Africa’s sports team were welcomed back into the international fold. One of the first high-profile sports events in the country was a rugby test match in August 1992 between South Africa and New Zealand at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium. The match was to take place under three conditions stipulated by the African National Congress (ANC), which could claim to represent the majority of South Africans: 1) that the Apartheid flag was not to be flown; 2) ‘Die Stem’, the Apartheid national anthem, was not be played; and 3) a minute’s silence was to be observed for victims of political violence in the country. Louis Luyt, the then president of South African rugby, ignored the agreement and the national anthem was played over the stadium’s public address system. Large sections of the mostly white crowd and all-white players joined in the singing. Moreover, the Apartheid flag was visible throughout the stadium and the minute’s silence was jeered.

After a period of difficult and protracted negotiations with increased levels of political violence across South Africa, the ANC was democratically elected in 1994. A new constitution was enacted in 1996, a new flag adopted and a range of Apartheid-era symbols was replaced. One of the more contentious compromises agreed to during the period of negotiations was the retention of parts of “Die Stem,” which was to be sung in conjunction with “Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika,” the hymn first adopted by the ANC as its official song in 1925 and which subsequently became the de facto national anthem for most South Africans outside Apartheid’s supporters. By 1997, the two songs were combined to form one anthem. Furthermore, the Apartheid era sports logo – the Springbok – was replaced as the national symbol with the Protea (the national flower), with the exception of rugby which includes both symbols.

The compromise on the anthem and the Springbok symbol for rugby can be understood in the context of a period of reconciliation and nation building. This was optimized by Mandela wearing the Springbok jersey during the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, hosted by South Africa. His decision to wear the jersey was enthusiastically welcomed by the overwhelmingly white crowd at the final. As a result, during the game refrains of ‘Nelson, Nelson’ could be heard from the stands. But in the same crowd a number of Apartheid era flags were also visible. As a result, Mandela’s gesture towards white rugby fans was not universally accepted in South Africa.

More than 20 years have passed that rugby final (since immortalized in a movie, “Invictus”) and increasingly political actors are calling for the removal of “Die Stem” from the current national anthem. One is Julius Malema, the leader of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), which has steadily increased its share of the vote and is now the third largest party in parliament. Malema argues that “Die Stem” is a symbol of Apartheid and equates it to “asking the Jews to sing a song about Hitler.” During a session of parliament Malema sat down during the singing of the Apartheid era verses of the anthem. The veteran journalist, Max du Preez, similarly has called for its removal. Du Preez, a white Afrikaner, contends that singing the Apartheid-era anthem reminds South Africans of an “era of injustice” and is a “prime symbol of Afrikaner nationalism.”

Symbols are potent reminders and place holders of experience, identity and power, especially in countries with such contentious histories as South Africa and the United States. Colin Kaepernick is illustrating this as the NFL season kicks into gear and violent confrontations between police and protestors over police brutality continue across the U.S. In South Africa, while some symbols of Apartheid remain, resolutions have been adopted to remove Apartheid-era logos, anthems and names. These actions signal a step towards change, beyond the symbolic, and the opportunity to address structural inequalities more generally.

Chris Bolsmann

Chris Bolsmann is a South African sociologist of sport.

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