Wilberforce Institute Singers - Morena Boloka / Leeto Le Tsenyebo Ea Sekepe Sa Mendi



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.

“Morena Boloka” in Sesotho

Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
Setjhaba sa, South Afrika — South Afrika.

Lord we ask You to protect our nation
Intervene and end all conflicts
Protect us, protect our nation
Protect South Africa, South Africa80

To my ear, Morena Boloka, sounds like a completely different tune from that of Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika. And yet by many accounts, the tune is supposed to be the Sotho version or ‘translation’ of the Sontonga’s famous anthem. In his seminal book In Township Tonight David Coplan suggests that “the Sotho verse [was] entirely new and not derived in any way from Sontonga’s or Mqhayi’s Xhosa verses,” and furthermore “was added to promote African Unity by the ANC” and that they “necessarily [changed] the melody due to differences in semantic tone.”81 I interpret Coplan’s account to affirm my suspicion that Morena Boloka might simply be derived from a completely separate and unique song.

Coplan in a separate paper from 2002, also suggests that Morena Boloka was “apparently composed and first published in 1942 by Moses Mphahlele.”82 This attribution is, likewise, mentioned widely on a number of reputable websites, though in my online research I was unable to find the original source for this claim. To my knowledge, the first recording of Morena Boloka predates much of this conjecture by thirteen years and was made by the Wilberforce Institute Singers under the direction of Dr. Francis Herman Gow, in June 1930.

1930 June c17
Morena Boloka (God Save the Race)
Conducted by Dr. F. H. Gow
Regal, GR 10, WEA 203
(Many thanks to Liezl Visagie at ILAM for sending me the label images.)

This recording was made by the same traveling unit (G. W. Cook and F. Chown) sent to South Africa by the Columbia Graphophone Company mentioned earlier. The track was issued on their Regal label with the coupling number GR 10, though, like all versions of Morena Boloka in my research, the composer remains uncredited on the label.83 Interestingly, the so-called B-side features another hymn sung by the Wilberforce Institute Singers, Leeto Le Tsenyebo Ea Sekepe Sa Mendi, and this one is attributed to Moses Mphahlele. Certainly the fact that his name appears on one side of the same disc suggests that there is definitely a connection between Mphahlele, Gow, the Wilberforce Singers and Morena Boloka. The absence of a composer credit on a disc is nothing new, but the fact that Mphahlele is specifically mentioned on one side and not the other suggests perhaps a song that, at that time, could not be attributed or perhaps one that was deemed historically “traditional”. Likewise, if Sontonga was viewed as the author, his name would have been credited.

Moses Mphahlele, a teacher, interpreter, poet and musician, was born in Pietersburg in 1895 and was the ANC Secretary in the Transvaal during the 1920s.84 He died in 1957 and a ceremony at his gravesite can be viewed on YouTube.

The Wilberforce Institute (now Community College) was founded in Evaton outside Johannesburg in 1908 by Charlotte Manye (later Maxexe), the first president of the ANC Women’s League.85 She named the school for the Ohio-based Wilberforce University where she had studied under, amongst others, W.E.B. Du Bois. Affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), this American historically black university (HBCU) opened in 1856 and was the first to be owned and operated by African-Americans.86

Francis Herman Gow, born in Cape Town in 1890 (Erlmann has 1887), was of Jamaican decent though some accounts have it that his mother was African-American while his father, Rev. Francis McDonald Gow, was Jamaican.87 Francis M. Gow (the senior) was a pastor in the AME ministry at Bethel Memorial Church in Cape Town from 1900-193188 and according to James Cambell, one of the “most important purveyors of African-American sacred music in South Africa.”89 Taking advantage of scholarships, Gow arranged for his three children to be educated in the United States, with Francis Herman Gow travelling there perhaps as early as 1906 to study first at the famed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.90 Like Manye, Gow (the junior) also studied at Wilberforce University in Ohio and subsequently taught at Phelps Hall Bible Training School in Tuskegee91 before returning to South Africa in the early 1920s. According to Erlmann he spent some time as a music teacher at the Zonnebloem Training College in Cape Town and then in 1925, remarkably, wrote and produced a show titled Up from Slavery.92

For six years in the 1920s and 30s, Gow was the principal at Wilberforce Institute in Evaton. In Johannesburg, the Wilberforce choir under his direction gave a live radio performance of Jubilee songs in April of 1927.93 Certainly this must have been broadcast by the newly formed African Broadcast Company (ABC, the precursor to the SABC), which had just been established, with permission from Government, by the Schlesinger Organisation on April 1st that same year.94

In June of 1930, the choir, as the Wilberforce Institute Singers, then recorded at least fourteen tracks,95 including Morena Boloka, for the visiting Columbia unit. Erlmann points out that these recordings “constitute the earliest recorded evidence of spiritual singing in South Africa and share many of the stylistic features of the older American university choirs and quartets.” He goes on to say that “Gow’s recordings had a far reaching effect on the popularity of Afro-American sacred music in South Africa and led to the formation of a new South African school of quartet singing.”96

The known recordings by The Wilberforce Institute Singers conducted by F. Herman Gow, June 1930 are listed below. (Note that the recordings are arranged in the order of their WEA prefix matrix numbers. The early Columbia recordings from the 1930 sessions also have an additional five-digit face number, only visible in the lead-out of the shellac that reflect the order of master processing, according to Rob Allingham. The listed composer follows the song title, which is followed by the label name and its coupling number. Click on the link to listen to the record in the ILAM archive.)

The Wilberforce Institute Singers, cJuly, 1929
WEA 201     Masigo A Sele (Regal, GR 4)
WEA 202     Sanibona (Reuben T. Caluza) (Regal, GR 13)
WEA 203     Morena Boloka (Regal, GR 10)
WEA 205     Baruti Ba Bacha (Regal, GR 4)
WEA 209     It’s Me O Lord (Columbia, AE 3)
WEA 211     Bye and Bye (Columbia, AE 3)
WEA 212     Sussanah (Columbia, OE 9)
WEA 213     Uncedo! (Columbia, OE 9)
WEA 214     Leeto Le Tsenyebo Ea Sekepe Sa Mendi (Moses Mphahlele) (GR 10)
WEA 216     Ke Ngoana Hao (Bonnet) (Columbia, OE 9)
WEA 217     Lizalis’ Idinga Iakho (John Knox Bokwe) (Columbia, OE 4)
WEA 218     Njenge Badi (Ntsiko) (Columbia, OE 4)
WEA             O Mary Don’t You Weep (Regal, GR 7)
WEA             Shout All Over God’s Heaven (Regal, GR 7)

The fact that Morena Boloka, like Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, was recorded on such an early occasion in 1930 does suggest that the song was viewed, even then, as important and significant. Unlike Plaatje’s Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika, however, there are no earlier examples of the tune in the Zonophone catalogue.


recorded 1930-06-22c
issued 1930
Columbia G. Co. EMI
made in UK
GR 10
matrix WEA 203
matrix WEA 214
78 rpm
first issue
source: ILAM, International Library of African Music



1.1Morena Boloka


2.2Leeto Le Tsenyebo Ea Sekepe Sa Mendi

(Moses Mphahlele)






This is the first known recording of Morena Boloka which forms part of the current South African National Anthem.

Many thanks to Liezl Visagie at ILAM for sending me the label images.

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.