President Ramaphosa’s statement in parliament on the 24th of May 2018 that “Die Stem” is not a symbol of Afrikaner identity but rather a “symbol of discrimination, oppression and misery” begs a reply.
At first glance the president’s statement stands in stark contrast to the statesmanship shown by President Mandela in the foreword to the National Symbols of South Africa where he wrote that “Die Stem”, “Nkosi Sikelele’ iAfrika”, the national flag and the national emblem is “the manifestation of a desire to reach a national consensus”.
However, of this former consensus regarding symbols and identity, little has remained today. South Africans have good reason to be concerned about the racial tension that is pulling at the seams of social cohesion and which is largely due to a lack of respect and polarization. In this context, the singing of “Die Stem” has for many Afrikaners become a symbol of protest in response to the contempt, maltreatment and marginalization of their cultural identity and history. By denying “Die Stem” as part of the Afrikaners’ cultural-historical identity and by reducing the complexity of history into a one-sided master story, a deadlock is created with no real solution in sight to move beyond the current climate and poisonous debates.
It cannot be denied that the bedrock from which “Die Stem” originated has formed Afrikaner identity. The words of this heroic poem that flowed from Langenhoven’s pen on the winter night of 31 May 1918, addressed a frail Afrikaner nation recovering from the ashes of the Anglo Boer War. Injured and divided after the Rebellion and feeling culturally inferior to the superiority of British imperialism, “Die Stem” gave Afrikaners a new voice.
With “Die Stem”, Langenhoven who was also the ingenious creator of the first Afrikaans glossary and spelling rules, captured in the finest language Afrikaners’ love for the everlasting mountains and far deserted plains of Africa.
His poem confirmed that Afrikaners belong here and that we are from Africa.
In our will, our work, our striving,
From the cradle to the grave –
There’s no land that shares our loving,
And no bond that can enslave.
Langenhoven reminded Afrikaners of the considerable strife by their ancestors for freedom from British colonialism and how this was achieved through the agonising trek of ox wagons into the unknown.
In the fourth verse of “Die Stem”, Langenhoven, in the words of DJ Opperman, gave the Afrikaans people a prayer for this country.
“Poetry” is described by NP van Wyk Louw as “a knot tie of many forces, the inert point between different tensions: between boundness and timelessness, intellect and action, loneliness and bearing all, absolute beauty and the substance of our daily toil; in this sense it is the knot tie of an individual’s personal strive and the existence of a people.”
No wonder then that the poem and the music added by ML de Villiers immediately appealed to the public.
On a lighter note, when judging his own work Langenhoven seemed to be quite humble. On the 2nd of June 1918 Sarah Goldblatt received a letter from him in which he wrote: “Hereby I send you a song I wrote with music that I composed – music and all. You will probably think it to be a smallest achievement – but we must struggle until one day we have an anthem. Let it be published as it is and then maybe someone can add better music, and even perhaps someone else even better words.”
As a cultural community, Afrikaners today have a historic task of protecting and cherishing our cultural heritage and symbols, whilst at the same time taking great care to do so with the necessary wisdom and compassionate sensitivity.
While inadvertently confirming “Die Stem” as part of our Afrikaner cultural-historical identity, we should at the same time not be ignorant of the President’s warning that “Die Stem” continues to be a symbol of “discrimination, oppression and misery” for many of our countrymen. In this regard, just imagine how Afrikaners must have felt in 1918 about songs like “God Save the King” and “Rule Brittania”.
If “Die Stem” is sung by Afrikaners just to make some or the other political statement, we are not only partly responsible for the current climate of intolerance and racial conflict, but we are also placing the future of “Die Stem” at serious risk.
The question to President Ramaphosa is not whether “Die Stem” should be banned into obscurity, but rather, how can South Africans accommodate each other’s cultural identity and cultural-historical heritage in a responsible manner beyond the spheres of the political debate?
In response, the FAK’s request to President Ramaphosa is simple. Mr. President, please give us back our “Stem”.
The FAK’s request is based on the conviction that a prosperous, fair and peaceful South Africa is still possible if there is a spirit of mutual respect and creative cooperation between all our communities to the benefit of all. Up until the 11th of June 1957, the copyright of “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika” belonged to the FAK as a coordinating cultural organization. Then the copyright was transferred to the South African government. By returning the copyright of the full version of “Die Stem” to the FAK, you will symbolically confirm the status of “Die Stem” as an Afrikaner cultural song.
In this way “Die Stem” will be extricated from the political arena, to be cherished and preserved as a cultural song like so many other Afrikaner cultural songs included in the FAK songbook.
The symbolism of such an act of statesmanship will have no impact on the copyright of the National Anthem or the few lines of “Die Stem” which was included in the anthem.
The few Afrikaans lines of “Die Stem”, which are still part of our National Anthem, are not only the result of a consensus that was reached, but also a symbol of the accommodating country that South Africa can be for all its communities. At the same time, it is a reminder of the challenges posed by a multifaceted democracy to all South Africans, and the statesmanship that it requires from all of us to overcome the current differences.