National Symbols of South Africa – 2010 Fifa Soccer World Cup African host country
The eight National Symbols
South Africa as it is today is a young country of only 18 years – it is an adolescent, if not a new-born, in terms of history.
It was born out of more than 400 years of colonisation and migration, of wars and evangelism, of heroism and defeat. There is bitterness aplenty in the story of this beautiful country, but also grace and forgiveness, acceptance and humanity.
The national symbols of the country reflect its history and point towards the hope of a people united in diversity and enjoying together the fruits of prosperity. It has not come easily to anyone in South Africa, but, as we say “ke nako” , now is the time! The time to show the world who we are and what has made us who we are, in spite of all the troubles and disappointments, we are hosting the greatest show on Earth. And we love it!
South Africa has eight National Symbols – the Anthem, the Flag, the Coat of Arms, the National Animal, the National Bird, the National Fish, the National Flower and the National Tree. I will discuss briefly each of these, starting, of course, as a music lover, with the Anthem.
Our Anthem is unique in the world as it is in four languages and comprises two separate compositions which have been brought together into a single unit, which surprisingly, works. It is also a quasi-modal Anthem, ending in a key other than that in which it started.
Back in 1897 a young school teacher in a Methodist mission composed a one-verse song, a petition to God to Bless Africa. It was written in his language, isiXhosa. The young man was Enoch Mankayi Sontonga, who was born in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape in around 1873, moved to Johannesburg where he taught at the Nancefield Mission, after having studied there.
The song, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika , was first sung in public, two years after he had composed it, at the ordination of a Methodist minister, the Reverend Boweni. It then began to be popular with choirs on the Witwatersrand and so its fame spread, to the extent that when the forerunner of the African National Congress (ANC), the South African Native National Congress, held its first meeting in Bloemfontein in 1912, the song was sung after the closing prayers, and became the official anthem of the ANC in 1925.
In the meantime Xhosa poet Samuel Mqhayi composed another seven verses for the song, and others added more verses in Sesotho.
Meanwhile the four colonies in South Africa had decided to unify into one country in 1910 (read the story here). In 1918 Afrikaans poet C.J. Langenhoven, who coincidentally was born in 1873, about the same time as Sontonga, wrote a poem called Die Stem (The Voice). This was set to music by Dutch Reformed Church dominee (minister) M.L. De Villiers. (On a personal note, De Villiers was a great friend of my grandfather Andrew McGregor, also a dominee, and my father used to spend a great deal of time with De Villiers when he was a cadet on the South African Training Ship General Botha in 1924 and 1925 as he tells in his memoirs here: http://murraymcgregor.wordpress.com/chapter-3-cadet-in-the-sats-general-botha-second-year/).
Die Stem officially became the Anthem of the Union of South Africa in 1957, but it had been sung as such unofficially since 1928.
Die Stem was hugely unpopular with most Blacks in South Africa who saw it as a triumphalistic celebration of white domination.
After the first democratic elections in 1994 the first president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, in a gesture of reconciliation, decided that the two anthems should be combined into one, and so it came about that we have this unique and beautiful anthem in four languages. It is sung first in isiXhosa, then in seSotho, then in Afrikaans and finally in English. The first two verses use the melody of the hymn composed by Sontonga, and the last two verses use the music of De Villiers. The official words of the Anthem are (with English translations in brackets):
(God Bless Africa)
Maluphakanyisw' uphondo lwayo,
(Raise high Her glory)
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
(Hear our Prayers)
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo
(God bless us, we her children)
Morena boloka setjhaba sa
(God protect our nation)
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
(End all wars and tribulations)
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
(Protect us, protect our nation)
Setjhaba sa South Afrika - South Afrika.
(Our nation South Africa - South Africa)
Uit die blou van onse
(Ringing out from our blue heavens)
Uit die diepte van ons see,
(From the depth of our seas)
Oor ons ewige gebergtes,
(Over our everlasting mountains)
Waar die kranse antwoord gee,
(Where the echoing crags resound)
Sounds the call to come
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom,
In South Africa our land.
I love this Anthem as it talks of peace, of coming together, and not of war and division, not of victory over anyone else.
The old South African flag was derived from the Dutch flag and had, in the centre white band, a device showing the flags of the former Boer Republics of South Africa and the Orange Free State with the Union Flag of the United Kingdom. This flag became very much associated with apartheid and so had very negative connotations for Blacks in South Africa. With the coming of democracy in 1994 there was clearly a need for a new flag.
The former State Herald of South Africa, Mr Frank Brownell, designed what has become an immensely popular flag, although he initially designed it as an interim flag. It is a vibrant, colourful design, with few elements that can be linked to the previous history of the country and so was largely acceptable to all segments of South African society.
This flag, which was first hoisted at midnight before the 27 April 1994 elections, has become ubiquitous at sports functions, political rallies and cultural events, indicating its wide acceptance by the people.
The Coat of Arms
This is the supreme symbol of the State of South Africa and appears on official documents as the stamp of authority. The Coat of Arms comprises several elements, each of which has symbolism and meaning.
The motto !ke e: /xarra //ke is written in the language of the /Xam people, a Khoisan group the oldest known people in South Africa. It means “diverse people unite.”
The four elephant tusks are representative of wisdom, strength, moderation and eternity.
The ears of wheat which appear within the oval shape formed by the tusks symbolise fertility, growth and the development of potential, the nourishment of people and the agricultural aspects of the Earth.
The central shield is meant to represent both a shield and a drum, symbolising the expression of identity and spiritual defence.
The human figures have been stylised from a Khoisan rock painting known as the Linton Stone which is in the South African Museum in Cape Town.
The spear and the knobkierie represent both defence and authority and also the legs of the secretary bird. They are lying down, symbolising peace.
The protea represents the beauty of South Africa, its natural endowments, and also symbolises the holistic integration of forces that grow from the Earth, nurtured from above.
The secretary bird, shown in flight with extended wings, is symbolic of power and protection.
The rising sun symbolises the promise of rebirth; the active faculties of reflection, knowledge, good judgement and willpower. It is the symbol of the source of life, of light and the ultimate wholeness of humanity.
The National Animal
South Africa's National Animal is the springbok, an antelope with the scientific name Antidorcas marsupialis which has a characteristic “pronk” or jumping display. The springbok also appears on the cap badge of the Royal Canadian Dragoons as a result of the part a herd of springbok played in the defeat by the dragoons of some Boer forces when the buck alerted the Canadian sentries to the presence of the Boer soldiers.
The springbok was for many years the emblem of all South African sporting codes but since 1994 the protea has taken its place except for rugby, which retains the springbok.
The National Bird
South Africa's National Bird is the tall and elegant Blue Crane, Anthropoides paradisia. This lovely bird, found almost everywhere in South Africa, is on the IUCN Red List in the category “Vulnerable”. In spite of being protected and in spite of being a National Symbol, the bird leads a somewhat precarious life, its major threats being commercial forestry which destroys its natural habitat, poisoning and collisions with overhead power cables.
The Blue Crane is especially important to the amaXhosa people who revere it as a symbol of valour. In isiXhosa the Blue Crane is called indwe and its feathers are presented to anyone who has acted in some way meritoriously, in a ceremony known as ukundzabela.
The National Fish
South Africa's National Fish is one which is only found in Southern African waters, from the Namibian coast in the west to the coast of kwaZulu-Natal in the east. It is called the galjoen and it feeds on molluscs found in the rocky reefs of the coast. Its scientific name is Dichistius Capensis and the suggestion to make it the National Fish of South Africa was made by Margaret Smith, widow of the great South African Ichthyologist Professor J.L.B. Smith.
Galjoen is the Dutch for “galleon” and it is thought that the fish got this name from the early Dutch settlers who thought that the line of markings along the fish's body looked like the gun ports on galleons.
The National Flower
South Africa's National Flower is the magnificent King Protea, Protea cynaroides, the largest bloom of the Large Protea family. It is found in the South West regions of the country. It gets the name cynaroides because of its similarity to the artichoke.
Proteas are beautiful in the wild and in flower arrangements where they have for decades been the centrepieces of the South African entries to the annual Chelsea Flower Show. In vases the flowers last a long time and they make excellent dried flowers.
The National Tree
In South Africa some of the most sought-after furniture, flooring and other woodwork, is made of yellow wood. So much so that the tree was almost exterminated.
But it is now the National Tree, the Real Yellowwood or Podocarpus latifolius. This is a magnificent tree which in forests can grow up to 40 metres in height. It is a hard wood and makes very handsome wooden articles which fetch high prices due to the relative scarcity.
The yellowwood has been around for about 100 million years in this country.
Not quite a National Symbol, but certainly something soccer fans will encounter, loudly, at the matches of the World Cup is the vuvuzela, a staple of soccer crowds in South Africa.
This metre-long plastic trumpet makes a sound like an elephant when blown well, and the sound reverberates around soccer stadiums all over South Africa. It has become the trademark sound of soccer matches in South Africa and soccer fans from around the world will get to know the sound during the World Cup.
The Fifa World Cup tournament starts on 11 June.
The world's greatest spectacle comes to South Africa
The National Symbols of South Africa reflect the diversity, natural and cultural richness of a country which, in spite of having within its borders the Cradle of Humanity and seven other World Heritage Sites, has long struggled to realise its greatness.
Long divided on racial, cultural, language and religious lines, the people of South Africa are coming together to celebrate the world's greatest spectacle with pride and joy. We welcome the world to this amazing and vibrant country.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010
More by this Author
Strand Street in Cape Town runs from the Castle of Good Hope on the Grand Parade to the foot of Signal Hill. On the way it passes many historical and interesting places, including what used to be called Boeren Plein...
South Africa is my home, my birthplace, and in spite of many problems and issues that still exist in the country I would not change it for anything.
Empathy is an attitude and more than that, it is a skill that can be used to deepen all kinds of relationships - at work and at home.