Anthem debate: Our past, our future?

Over the last ten days or so we've seen the rumblings of another debate around our national anthem. It was started by a suggestion from an ANC MP that the SABC should broadcast it on its radio stations twice a day, to "instill patriotism". And then it started rolling.

First was Steve Hofmeyr who, bless him, sang all four verses of Die Stem at the Innibos Culture Festival. And that was followed up, slightly predictably, by a call from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) for the anthem to be changed and the part of it made up by Die Stem to be removed. The Freedom Front Plus (FF+) has, sigh, opposed this in public. Sadly, all of the people involved here are having the wrong discussion, about the wrong thing, and we are all making the mistake of letting the extremes in our politics run the table on this conversation.

South Africa being South Africa, with our own awful, tortured, separate histories, all of those people talking about the anthem are making a simple calculation that, if you are white, you want to protect the Die Stem part of the anthem, and, if you are black, you want to prioritise the Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika part of the anthem.

People who do this are not really different to those who claim we should all live apart in hate.

All they are trying to do is use the boxes we were put into all those years ago and keep us there. What utter nonsense is this? And why would they?

The short answer is, of course, to increase their own power. Extremists thrive on division, on little boxes, on making people feel they are part of something and everyone else is not. They thrive on "difference", the "other". When people who do this are successful, it's generally bad news for the country concerned.

On this issue, this is what is happening here.

The FF+ essentially claims that we need to keep Die Stem because, without it, Afrikaners would feel marginalised. They would feel less a part of South Africa. At first blush, or prima facie as Gerrie Nel would say, that makes sense. The whole point of the anthem as it is now is that it is a compromise, a way of bringing everyone together, when their politics and backgrounds are very, very different. But it is also a product of apartheid. Without apartheid we would never need this kind of compromise.

Surely it is not to the advantage of FF+ voters to allow ourselves to be defined by apartheid forever? Wouldn't you think they have the most to lose? Because of this definition we, quite rightly, have affirmative action, BEE, and arguments about quotas for the Springboks. It is completely irrational for someone who votes for them to agree with this.

A country's identity is both intertwined with its anthem and yet not defined by it. Germany and France have had their parliaments holding joint sittings, and yet the Germany has managed to ignore Le Marseillaise's comments about "impure Prussian blood". Britain's anthem is technically "God Save the Queen". Good luck getting many Welshmen, or Scots for that matter, to sing it. Having said all of that, an anthem can play a role in forging a new identity. It is this that we should be aiming for.

Changing an identity for a nation is tough, and requires, generally, at least a generational-length slog. And history is tough to let go of, if a nation allows itself to be defined by certain events.

The ditty "Two Worlds Wars and One World Cup" may be said with irony by middle-class Brits, but it's useful for a certain brand of football fan. And that includes a reference to something that started a full century ago this month.

The United States allow themselves to endlessly debate the intentions of the "Founding Fathers" because of how that particular creation myth has taken hold. Somehow a group of farmers, some of them slave-owners, from almost 300 years ago, are held up as having the wisdom to solve 21st century problems that current thinkers cannot solve. Proof of the corroding influence certain events can have.

We can do better. And thus we should.

It is completely understandable, and correct, that just 20 years after liberation, we still allow ourselves to be defined by apartheid. It is, for probably the majority of our people, the economic reality of their lives. And it makes sense to celebrate that liberation with Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika; it should be celebrated, and accommodation should be made for those who may feel outside the South African fold.

However, it is a mistake to allow this to go on forever.

If we do, we could run the risk of confining ourselves to those boxes and groups that the extremists want to keep us in. We allow ourselves to keep on thinking that we were either overlords or victims, rather than just seeing everyone else in this country as what they are; South African. In a strange sort of way, the ANC's belief in non-racialism is almost undermined by the use of our current anthem, because while many, many people are proud of all of it, it is still a compromise.

We don't want a compromise as a nation. We want a nation, standing on its own two feet, proud of itself, confident, with an eye to the future, and perhaps an ear on the past.

Not now, sure - 20 year is too soon - but at some point.

As a first stab at the idea, let's think of a few things that we probably all agree on. Just about everyone loves the Constitution. Just about everyone loves voting. While it may be tough to make voting romantic in verse, surely some gifted lyricist out there can do something with that.

Then there is Nelson Mandela. There's a historical person you could include in an anthem, without letting his huge story overpower the entire project, and then take us backwards, if it's done deftly.

It's tempting to make a suggestion about the natural beauty of our particular nation state, but it would be difficult to avoid mentioning the blue of our heavens or the depths of our seas. So perhaps we should look elsewhere.

This is not going to be an easy task, primarily because there is still so much that divides us. But that is kind of the point. We should not be focusing on those divisions; we should look for common ground. And use that as the basis for a new anthem.

Not now, but in a few decades or so. But let's at least starting talking about it now.

Stephen Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk, and the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes

This column appeared on Daily Maverick.

Watch Grootes's #ConsideredView on this topic: