Sol T. Plaatje - Pesheya Ko Tukela / Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika / Singa Mawela



By Siemon Allen

This text is extracted from an article on the early recordings of the South African National Anthem. The full version can be viewed at the Flaint blog.

“Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” in isiXhosa and isiZulu

Nkosi sikelel' iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw' uphondo lwayo,
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.

Lord bless Africa
May her glory be lifted high
Hear our petitions
Lord bless us, your children10

The first stanza of the original lyrics to the hymn, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, were written in isiXhosa by Enoch Mankayi Sontonga in 1897 at Nancefield (Klipspruit), seventeen kilometers west of Johannesburg. Sontonga, a school teacher at a Methodist mission school there, had “a gift for song” according to D.D.T. Jabavu and he avidly composed tunes for his students to use at public events.11

By some accounts Sontonga also composed the music for the hymn later that same year. Though there are notable articles online that suggest the melody is loosely based on a Welsh hymn entitled Aberystwyth written by Joseph Parry probably in 1879. According to these sources the hymn is likely to have travelled to Africa through Welsh missionaries.12

Many reputable websites have repeated this claim including an article by the BBC on a lost hymn by Parry that had been found by the conductor Edward-Rhys Harry.13 But the original source for the claim is a little more elusive. The earliest reference I have found online for the connection is from a Wikipedia entry for Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika which was updated in December 2010.14 (Watch the hymn being performed by the Tredegar Town Band at YouTube and feel free to make some comments below. Other performances can be found at YouTube, which may sway you in either direction.)

Written by hand in Tonic Sol-fa, Sontonga compiled his songs, including Nkosi Sikelel i’Afrika, in an exercise book that he hoped one day to publish, but sadly before doing so he died on April 18th, 1905.15 Mweli Skota, as Veit Erlmann reveals in African Stars, suggested that John Dube, the founder of the Ohlange Institute near Durban in 1901 and also the first President of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912, was “so moved” by the tune that he asked permission for his choir at Ohlange to perform it.16 The choir would eventually popularise the tune while touring Natal and the Transvaal. Likewise friends and other choir teachers borrowed the manuscripts from Sontonga’s widow after his death and eventually the original documents disappeared.17

According to David Coplan Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika was first publicly sung in 1899 at the ordination ceremony of the Reverend M. Boweni, who became the first Tsonga clergyman in the Methodist Mission Church.18 On January 8th, 1912 the Ohlange Institute Choir performed the song after the closing prayer at the first meeting of the newly formed SANNC.19 Coplan suggests that Reuben T. Caluza directed the choir on this historical occasion but this might be reexamined in light of Erlmann’s claim that Caluza only joined the staff at Ohlange Institute in 1915 replacing Lingard D. Bopela as choir leader.20

The SANNC officially shortened their name to the ANC or African National Congress in May 1923 and eventually adopted Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika as their official anthem in 192521 replacing Reuben Caluza’s Silusapho Lwase Afrika (aka “Umteto we Land Act”) that had been their first anthem since 1913.22 (Coplan maintains that this all took place in 1925 though Veit Erlmann contradicts this account by suggesting that Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika was adopted by the SANNC in 1919.)

Seven more verses in isiXhosa, penned by poet Samuel E. Mqhayi, were added in 1927 and first published in the form of a pamphlet by the Lovedale Press that same year. The song was also printed in the newspaper, Umteteli wa Bantu on June 11th, 192723 and subsequently included in hymnals (1929) and books on poetry. The popularity of the hymn spread throughout Africa and variations of the tune were eventually adopted as national anthems by a number of countries including Tanzania, Zambia, for a time Zimbabwe and Namibia and perhaps somewhat ironically by the Transkei “Bantustan” at its formation in 1963.24

With the adoption of the hymn by the ANC as its official anthem, the song was sung at many official events. But it could also be heard at most gatherings of protest and subsequently became a rallying cry and symbol of resistance. The role of the hymn in this way shifted from a religious to a political context. By many accounts, the song was apparently banned by the apartheid government after the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, when both the ANC and PAC were outlawed, but I am still searching for more specific documentation of this ban. Ironically, there were examples of the song being tolerated by the apartheid government in the 1960s and this is discussed in more detail below.

1923 October 16th
Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika
Recorded at Hayes, Middlesex, UK
Zonophone 4168, matrix Bb3640-2

If one consults His Master’s Voice / De Stem van Zijn Meester, the Dutch Catalogue in Alan Kelly’s excellent series documenting the discographical history of the Gramophone Company Limited, one will find an entry for six tracks by Sol Plaatje on page 88.25 Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje was one of the founding members and the first General Secretary of the SANNC and it is he who made the first recording of the hymn in London in 1923.

Plaatje was part of the SANNC delegation that traveled to the UK in May 1914 to present their case of protest against the Natives Land Act of 1913, in hopes that the British government would aid in the law’s repeal. The Act, for the most part, disenfranchised blacks from owning land in the Union of South Africa. Plaatje would return to South Africa in February of 1917 after the publication in England of his critical book Native Life in South Africa the year before. He then made two additional journeys to the UK, leaving South Africa in June 191926 and then returning again in September 192227 after spending nearly two years in Canada and the United States. Plaatje’s recordings were subsequently made at the Hayes studios in Middlesex, London in the last few days of his final visit. He departed for South Africa on October 26, 1923.28

Plaatje had returned to the UK after the United States partly to seek funding to publish his translation of the Fellowship Hymn Book used by the International Brotherhood Congress.29 Brian Willan, in his excellent biography on Plaatje, believes that he may have been introduced to “people in the gramophone recording world” after a month long participation in a performance titled Cradle of the World, at the Philharmonic Hall in August 1923. The elaborate event included the presentation of a wildlife film shot in central Africa sprinkled with live sketches meant to illustrate parts of the film. While the larger production itself was more-or-less panned by the press, it did give Plaatje the opportunity to employ his singing talents.30

The UK based Gramophone Company Limited (home to labels like His Master's Voice and Zonophone) was one of the first companies to issue South African music and had sent a recording engineer George Walter Dillnutt there with a mobile unit in March and April of 1912.31 The unit recorded material in Johannesburg and Cape Town that was subsequently issued on 78 rpm shellac discs and marketed in South Africa on the company's Zonophone label as the 4000 series. The company would continue to make recordings in the 1920s and 30s at its head office in London and these included the seven tunes by Plaatje.

At least five songs including Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika were recorded by Plaatje with Sylvia Colenso on piano on October 16th, 1923. These were subsequently issued on four sides (or two discs) with Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika being accompanied by a Hlubi folk song, Peshaya Ko Tukela (Across the Tugela), on the same side and an isiXhosa tune, Singa Mawela, on the reverse side (Zonophone, 4168). Two additional tunes were probably recorded by Plaatje in that same session with Colenso. It is likely that the sound quality of these was not deemed good enough and Plaatje was asked to return on October 23 and retake both. Colenso does not appear to have been available for the later session and thus two other pianist were called in: Mr. Grant and Madame Adami. These two tracks, each from a third take, were issued on a third disc (Zonophone, 4169).32

The six recordings made by Sol T. Plaatje in the order that they were first recorded based on the matrix numbers:

Sol T. Plaatje with Sylvia Colenso on piano, October 16, 1923
Bb3638-1     Lead kindly Light (Dykes) (Sechuana) (4167, X-7-32084)
Bb3639-2     Hark, 'tis the Watchman's Cry (M. Foster) (Sechuana) (4167, X-7-32083)
Bb3640-2     a) Peshaya Ko Tukela (Across the Tugela) (Hlubi folk song)
                       b) Nkosi Sikelel i'Afrika (Native National Hymn in Zulu) (4168, X-7-32085)
Bb3643-1     Singa Mawele (We are twins) (Si-Xosa) (4168, X-7-32086)

Sol T. Plaatje with Madame AdamiA and Mr. GrantB on piano, October 23, 1923
Bb3641-3     A Band of Hard-Pressed Men are WeA (Si-Xosa) (4169, X-7-32087)
Bb3642-3     The Kaffir Wedding SongB (J. K. Bokwe) (Si-Xosa) (4169, X-7-32088)

Interestingly Plaatje in the recording of Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika is accompanied by Miss Sylvia Colenso on piano. She was 36 at the time, and in addition to piano contribution her voice can be heard in the background repeating the refrain “Osa” — her ‘response’ to his ‘call’. What strikes me about this musical pairing, this collaboration if you like, is the way in which it bears witness to the crossing of racial and gender differences. Here a black man and white woman perform together the very first recording of the future South African National anthem. This simple collaboration comes to stand powerfully and symbolically for what a future ideal multi-racial South Africa could be.

Sylvia Nellie Colenso was born in London in 1887,33 and yet her connection to South Africa and its history is deep. Her grandfather, John William Colenso, was the famed social-activist and controversial first Anglican Bishop of Natal. He died in Durban in 1883. His daughters followed the liberal path set by him in South Africa. For example Frances Ellen Colenso published two books in the 1880s on relations between the Zulus and the British, while Harriette Emily Colenso became an outspoken critic of the Natalian authorities and their treatment of the Zulus.34 Sol Plaatje on his first visit to London had befriended the Colenso family, particularly Sophie Colenso,35 the wife of Francis Ernest Colenso, the Bishop’s son. It was with their daughter, Sylvia, who played piano, that Plaatje made the recordings.

Alan Kelly's discographical research has determined that Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika is listed as the “Native National Hymn in Zulu” while other songs by Plaatje are sung in “Si-Xosa”.36 The current version of the National Anthem has the 1st stanza in both isiXhosa and isiZulu, and versions of the song in both languages have existed for decades, generally though most early recordings were sung in isiXhosa. I have consulted some isiZulu speakers and it does appear that the recording is in isiXhosa rather than isiZulu.37

One discographical detail about the recording is that the matrix number is listed as Bb3640-2, with the “2” suggesting that there was an earlier take of the song made. Some further research would need to be undertaken at EMI Archives to determine whether that first master disc still exists and if it also included the singing of Nkosi Sikelel iAfrica.

Another small detail regarding the matrix numbers in Kelly’s research is that Singa Mawela (matrix Bb3643-1) is listed as being recorded on October 16th, 1923 whereas the remaining two tracks he lists as recorded on October 23 have lower matrix numbers (Bb3641-3 and Bb3642-3). The “3” at the end of these numbers suggests that they were the third takes of each song. It is my guess that Plaatje had made the first takes on October 16th and then was asked to come back to the studio and make the additional takes on October 23rd as the earlier ones may have been deemed inadequate. This might also explain why different pianists were used on the later recordings as perhaps Miss Colenso was unavailable on the second occasion. Multiple takes on different days usually still carried the initial number of the first take.

The fact that Kelly lists the tracks not only in his T-series (T for Twin) discography38 of Zonophone records but also in his book His Master’s Voice / De Stem van Zijn Meester: The Dutch Catalogue could suggest that the records were not only issued in the UK for the South African market but also in the Netherlands.

I was curious to hear this very early recording of Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika and did some digging online to see where it could be found. At least three physical copies of the record do exist in various collections:

1) The EMI Archives in Hayes, Middlesex has unlabeled test pressings of all three discs by Plaatje (4167, 4168 and 4169). It is from these discs that Christopher Ballantine, in the Department of Music at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (UKZN), requested copies be made for research purposes in the 1980s.39 These transfers included many additional early and rare recordings on the Zonophone label on cassette and those tapes eventually formed part of the UKZN Music Library collection. With funding from the National Research Foundation, the cassette copies were digitised in 2007 through the South African Music Archive Project (SAMAP) and subsequently hosted online by Digital Innovation South Africa (DISA).40 Shortened samples of these tracks can know be heard at the SAMAP website.

It is here that I first came to look for the recordings. Alas, no results were found in my searches for “Nkosi Afrika” or “Plaatje” so I tried the disc number “4178” and remarkably got results for the two tracks Pesheya ko Tukela and Singa Mawela, but still no Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika. From Kelly’s research I knew that Nkosi was on the same side as Pesheya ko Tukela and from Brian Willian’s account that it was not listed on the label.41 As a result when SAMAP digitized the tapes the single track was titled with the name of the first song only. Also Plaatje’s name in the digitizing process had been spelt Plaatjie thus making name searches turn up with no results. A listen would confirm the latter track, but unfortunately sound files at SAMAP are clipped to fade out after 30 seconds and so I was unable to determine if the song was indeed on this recording. I contacted Christopher Ballantine who then put me in touch with the UKZN Music Librarian, Andrea Vorster and Pat Liebetrau at SAMAP/DISA and a search was undertaken for the original tracks. With some additional detective work a full version of Peshaya Ko Tukela revealed the “hidden track” in the last minute of the song. Pat Liebetrau has since updated the files at SAMAP to include Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika and it can now be heard here.42

source: Historical Papers, Wits
2) The Historical Papers Archive at Wits University has what appears to be a badly cracked original shellac disc which forms part of their collection of Sol Plaatje papers (A979-Df). Many thanks to Gabriele Mohale, Archivist at Historical Papers, for sharing with me images of the cracked disc which is now stored behind glass for protection. The Plaatje documents were given to the collection by Rex Molemo and apparently “were found in a wooden box in a storeroom in Mafeking”.43 This collection also includes a leaflet (A979-Dc) put out by the Zonophone Company advertising Plaatje’s three records. The leaflet is reproduced in Brian Willan’s biography of Sol Plaatje and can also be viewed at the National Papers website.44 National Papers with funding from the Carnegie Foundation undertook to digitize all Plaatje’s documents in 2012. But as the inventory notes reveal, Deborah Wilson, the archivist responsible, was unable to make a recording from the disc because of its damage.45 The collection however does have digital copies of the record as well as Plaatje’s two others which, I assume, they were able to get from the EMI Archives. Interestingly, as Willan notes, the track Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika is not listed in the advertising leaflet nor is it identified on the disc label itself. In an online bulletin, Willan has pointed to some speculation over this omission that suggests that the “song was regarded as politically sensitive and that the recording was seditious”.46 Willan, however, disagrees and concludes that the recording may have been an afterthought and the omission simply an oversight by the company. It must be noted however that Kelly’s discographical research, which is sourced from a number of varied documents including the original ledgers from the Gramophone Company, does include the so-called “hidden” track as part b) on the side where Pesheya ko Tukela is part a). It is possible that Kelly’s research may have been informed by Willan’s, however if that be the case, I am sure Willan would not have referred to the track as “Native National Hymn sung in Zulu” which sounds more like historical meta-data derived from old documents.

3) The British Library National Sound Archive in London has digital copies of a severely warped disc that was brought to them in September 1995 by Brian Willan. They applied some significant procedures, including heating the disc in a specially designed oven, to rectify the warpage and make a recording. Willan had been given the disc by a relative of Plaatje’s while in the process of doing his research.47 The NSA through Willan’s assistance were eventually able to secure digital copies of all three discs from the EMI archives. This account and the archiving process are published in their bulletin Playback (issue 12). The recordings can be heard on the NSA tape 10632WR.


recorded 1923-10-16
issued 1923
Gramophone Co. EMI
made in UK
matrix Bb3640-2
matrix Bb3643-1
78 rpm
first issue
source: Historical Papers, Wits



1.1Pesheya Ko Tukela


1.2Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika

(Enoch Sontonga)

2.3Singa Mawela




SOL T. PLAATJE - vocal
SYLVIA COLENSO - piano, vocal



This is the first known recording of the hymn Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, which today forms part of the South African National Anthem. The one minute track is not listed on the label but does come after Peshaya ko Tukela, a Hlubi folk song.

The images of the record labels above have been reconstructed based on photos of a severely cracked example of the disc that is in the collection of Historical Papers at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Because of the damage the disc is now stored behind glass, making photography difficult. Many thanks to Gabriele Mohale, Archivist at Historical Papers, for sharing with me the images of the damaged disc.

For more information about this record and the anthem, read my full article, The South African National Anthem: a history on record at the Flatint blog. An extract from the essay can be viewed in the liner notes section to the left.