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"God Bless Africa", the title of a Xhosa hymn which became the unofficial anthem of the anti-apartheid movement and has now been incorporated into South Africa's national anthem.

Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika was composed in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga, a teacher at a Methodist mission school in Johannesburg. In 1923 the writer Sol Plaatje, one of the founding members of the African National Congress, had it recorded in London; a Sesotho version was published in 1942 by Moses Mphahlele. It was a popular church hymn and gradually became a political anthem as well. There is no single standard version but this is the one I remember best, beginning with the Xhosa verses and followed by the Sesotho (subject to correction):

Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw' uphondo lwayo
Yizwa imathandazo yethu
Nkosi Sikelela
Thina lusapho lwayo.

Yihla moya, yihla moya
Yihla moya oyingcwele
Nkosi Sikelela
Thina lusapho lwayo.

Morena boloka sechaba sa heso
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
Morena boloka sechaba sa heso,
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho.

O se boloke, o se boloke,
Sechaba sa heso, Sechaba sa heso.

The most convenient English translation is this:

Lord, bless Africa
May her spirit rise high up
Hear thou our prayers
Lord bless us.

Lord, bless Africa
May her spirit rise high up
Hear thou our prayers
Lord bless us Your family.

Descend, O Spirit
Descend, O Holy Spirit
Lord bless us
Your family.

Addendum 2004: As StrawberryFrog says below, this is also one of most the beautiful, tuneful anthems on the planet. Like him I first heard it, and learned to sing it, in the mad days of the mid-1980s; it still never fails to make my hair stand on end.

In his "Dream Keeper" (Blue Note, 1991), Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra did a great version of Nkosi Sikelel' i Afrika, the African National Congress anthem.

In the booklet of the CD there's a scan of the score, with a slightly different translation:

Lord Bless Africa
Let its Horn be Raised
Listen also to our Prayers
Lord Bless
Lord Bless
Come Spirit
Come Spirit
Holy Spirit
Lord bless us
We, thy Children

It was the late '80s, probably 1986 but I can’t be sure. I was young, naïve, idealistic, nervous but excited at my first protest meeting. The speakers had all spoken about why the state of emergency must end, how the tricameral parliament was a sham to prop up apartheid, and how one person, one vote in a unitary state was our destiny.

At the end, the facilitator stood up and said "we shall now sing the national anthem".

My jaw dropped. These young radicals were going to sing the state’s anthem, "Die Stem" (the call of South Africa), that pompous, self-important piece of marching band Afrikaner glorification? I couldn’t believe it, yet everyone accepted this statement without even a murmur.

But he had already liberated himself from that nationality. He clenched his right hand, raised it up to his shoulder, and calmly and quietly, in a small voice as he sang the words Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrica, Maluphakanyisw' uphondo lwayo. The bitersweet, subtle yet powerful, plaintive melody filled the hall as people joined in. Nkosi Sikelela - Lord bless us.

I don't know half the words, I don't speak Xhosa, I don't believe in God, but the song is etched into my mind. Die stem needs a band to support it and make it sound halfway real, but a few good voices singing Nkosi in close harmony, the African way, can touch your heart.

The women broke off into a second voice on the O se boloke, o se boloke flying above the calm, sad and determined baritone answer: O, se boluke

It was indescribably moving.

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