Zaidel-Rudolph and the writing of a perfect song for a Rainbow Nation

Nelson Mandela examining the CD of a composition Zaidel-Rudolph made, celebrating his life. Photograph courtesy Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph

Nelson Mandela holding the CD of a work Zaidel-Rudolph composed, celebrating his life. Photograph courtesy Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph

Possibly one of the most potent symbols of our identity as a unique culture is our National Anthem. Lee Hirsch in 2002 constructing the important film Amandla! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony gave beautiful documentary insight into how music and history cleave together in South Africa, and have done so, through the Struggle, informing who we are as South Africans.

But through layer upon layer of song and tune, of protest ditty and household chorus, the national anthem must shine through. Johannesburg-based Professor Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph, arguably one of the more recognised contemporary composers in the world – and the first woman to attain her doctorate in music composition in South Africa, was responsible for the composite version of our current national anthem.

“The process for me started in 1995,” Zaidel-Rudolph, now, since her retirement last year, an honorary research academic at the University of the Witwatersrand, told My View. “I was approached by President Nelson Mandela’s office to be part of the committee to organise and rearrange a composite version of the two anthems – the old national anthem, Die Stem, and the African anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika

The process had begun a couple of years earlier, formally in April of 1993. Musicologist Michael Levy writes: “the Multiparty Negotiating Forum (MPNF) began work in Kempton Park outside Johannesburg, with the aim of creating a democratic South Africa, and in November of that year ratified the Interim Constitution of the Republic of South Africa which regulated government of the country through the 1994 elections until the adoption of the final Constitution in 1996.

“Professor Elize Botha was appointed by the MPNF as chairman of its commission on national symbols which at first invited submissions from the public for the creation of a completely new and original national anthem.A sub-committee was appointed to oversee this process.Although more than 200 new proposed anthems were received, none was considered suitable.”

Zaidel-Rudolph was appointed, some three years later, a member of a committee to focus on the anthem. It was chaired by professor of African languages at the University of the Witwatersrand, Mzilikazi Khumalo, and in addition to Zaidel-Rudolph, comprised other musical and linguistic heavy-weights in the country: Richard Cock, Professor Khabi Mngoma, Professor Mazizi Kunene, Professor Elize Botha, Fatima Meer, Dr Wally Serote, Professor John Lenake, Anna Bender and Professor Johan de Villiers.

“The committee drew from all over the country. Dr Ben Ngubane, minister of Arts and Culture at the time initiated the process and facilitated it,” said Zaidel-Rudolph. “In this committee, they asked people to make suggestions. How do you take an anthem that is 5’20” – because it was two anthems conjoined – “and compress it into an intelligible,singable composite version? What do you remove?” She explains that traditionally, an anthem should never be longer than two minutes.

“Mandela’s directive was that it should be under two minutes, and I reckoned 1’50” would have been okay – even 1’48”- whichis what she eventually achieved.

Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph with Nelson Mandela. Photograph courtesy Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph.

Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph with Nelson Mandela. Photograph courtesy Jeanne Zaidel-Rudolph.

“So, Richard Cock and Professor Mzilikazi Khumalo, who have worked together for many years on massed choir festivals, developed a blueprint, which put Die Stem first, and then Nkosi. There were no English words.

“I arrived with my idea: I’d put Nkosi first, in a particular key, then added a bridge passage, because the average man cannot sing those two songs in the same key as the one becomes terribly high. So after Nkosi is finished, in G Major, the music modulates down to D Major for excerpts of Die Stem. I also wrote the English words.

“A discussion proffered unanimous support for my suggested structure and though Cabinet found my original English words to be a little too militaristic, I re-submitted fresh lyricsand was asked to put the final version into practice.”

She described this decision at the time in the local newspaper as “the highlight of my life. My roots are in Africa and through my great love of music and especially of composition, this has been an incredible experience. It is such an honour for me to hear my own work on the national and international stage, radio and television. And it has been an honour to do this for my country and our President.I spent many weeks in my studio in Bagleyston agonising over the final composite,” she told Joy Kanter of the Rosebank Killarney Gazette in 1995.

“They tasked me with doing this whole thing, which was cutting, cutting, cutting. Also at that committee meeting, a very interesting thing happened. Fatima Meer, who was very close to Mandela, and a Muslim woman with whom I became quite friendly,, was adamant that the ‘Woza Moya’ section of Nkosi, should come out. It means ‘Come Oh Spirit’.At the time, it was strongly felt around the table that ‘Come Oh Spirit’ meant the Christian holy Trinity, so it wasn’t appropriate for Muslims. Or Jews.So, that was adopted.”

The anthem contains isiZulu, isiXhosa, Setswana and Sesotho, in addition to Afrikaans and English. “I do not speak the African languages,” said Zaidel-Rudolph. “So I consulted Khumalo, the professor of African languages on the committee. I had done all the music and I asked him how we do this so that we don’t chop any of the words in half. Most of the repetitions we took out, which helped a lot with the shortening and editing process of the work.

“After all this I did a piano and vocal score, with new English words which I had written and then they asked me to do a full orchestration for full orchestra. And I had a lot of fun with that, because I tried to think of ways of being symbolic. In the one section near the end, I put Nkosi as a counterpoint because it worked harmonically. I superimposed it with Die Stem in the orchestration to show reconciliation and all the symbolism of what was transpiring which the average guy would not have recognised, but which a musician might have heard, because I put it also in African instruments. It is in the marimba and the cabassa in the original orchestral version.”

For a while now, there has been talk of wanting to rework the national anthem. Zaidel-Rudolph is cognisant of this: “People don’t like the composite version. The real die-hards and stalwarts of the struggle feel that there shouldn’t be any of Die Stem in there.”

But if this happened, would it change the anthem’s identity? Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika composed as a hymn in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga, means God bless Africa, and is a part of several anthems throughout the continent. It was adopted by the ANC as the closing song for its meetings in 1912.

Levy explains in Samro’s publication Notes: “Although Nkosi Sikelel’iAfrika was originally written in Zulu, in the 1920s, Xhosa stanzas were added to it by Samuel Mqhayi, a Xhosa poet and historian who sat on the Xhosa language bible revision board. In 1942, Moses Mphahlele, an ANC secretary, poet and musician published Morena Boloka, the Sesotho version.”

Involved as a Director in the SA Music Rights Organisation (Samro) since 2008, Zaidel-Rudolph is also a Director on the board of the Samro Foundation. She’s also a member of the Social and Ethics Committee and its Nominations and Governance Committee. “We are involved in music policy, especially when it relates to government.

“I wouldn’t say that this national anthem is the perfect blend, but I believe it is the best one at the moment. I thought very carefully about it keeping some Afrikaans words because Mandela said we must.Just like he said with the Springboks: you don’t destroy. You elevate and re-use.”

Conceived as a poem in 1918, Die Stem was written by the poet CJ Langenhoven and composed by Marthinus Lourens De Villiers in 1921. It was adopted as the official national anthem of South Africa in May 1957, shortly before South Africa became independent.

“Maybe it is time for a new anthem,” Zaidel-Rudolph continues. “But I don’t know where that anthem will come from. Because people, now that it’s taken nearly 20 years to learn it, are not so happy to let go of it.

“When first I was approached, the idea of composing the country’s national anthem was quite a thought for me. I had never been involved in thinking about the anthem. At that stage, I didn’t know Nkosi and I had to make it my business very speedily to know it.”

This selected version was officially adopted as the National Anthem of South Africa by President, Nelson Mandela, by Proclamation No. 68 in the Government Gazette of October 10, 1997.

But who owns it? While Zaidel-Rudolph was paid for her work, copyright for a national anthem is more complicated and no royalties accrue to anyone. Levy adds: “Strictly speaking, all South African own the anthem, but free of any and all copyright and commercial restraints. The national anthem of South Africa is owned by the state which has determined that the work is in the public domain.”

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