If South Africa ever wants to change its national anthem, there’s an obvious substitute. There may be a few challenges though. It’s long – more than eight minutes longer than Uruguay’s five-minute chant.
But it also has far fewer words than Greece’s 158-stanza marathon. In fact, it has only two lines shouted out towards the end of its whopping 13 minutes and 35 seconds. And that’s more than Spain’s anthem, which doesn’t have any words. A competition to write lyrics for it was held in 2007, but it proved so unpopular that the song remained purely instrumental.
But our substitute anthem has many more pros. You’ll never forget its words. It is jazz, and no other anthem claim that. You can dance to it – it liberates your limbs. Its humanity incites the purest joy.
And it has deep political roots, evoking South Africa’s dark past, but also celebrating its people and their courageous resistance to oppression. There’s a great communication between the song’s instruments – they sound and look different, but they’re having a loving, respectful and interesting conversation.
I’m referring, of course, to Mannenberg, which was released in 1974 by the great Dollar Brand, later to become Abdullah Ibrahim. With Ibrahim on piano, the song features Basil Coetzee on a haunting tenor sax, Robbie Jansen on alto sax, and Monty Weber on drums.
It was recorded in Cape Town at a time of forced removals, and named after one of the townships out on the Cape Flats. Manenberg (spelled slightly differently from the song), 20km from Cape Town’s city centre, was established in 1966 as a result of apartheid’s brutal forced removals programme.
Mannenberg was the title track of an LP that was the best-selling jazz record in South Africa in 1974 and 1975, even though it was an overtly political song. But it got its proper political colours in the 1980s, when the music of Cape Town musicians such as Ibrahim, Jansen and Coetzee lifted spirits and nurtured community in the struggle.
As Gwen Ansell wrote in her seminal work, Soweto Blues: Jazz, Popular Music and Politics in South Africa: “During the apartheid years of defiance politics, Mannenberg became an anthem of the struggle … During the struggle years, Coetzee was at the forefront of support for anti-apartheid organisations, always prepared to provide music for rallies.”
This special song, without words, lyrics or slogans, became a protest song of note, even an anthem of the popular uprising of the 1980s, as waged by organisations such as the United Democratic Front.
It remains vital, evocative and deeply moving to this day. As writer Lindsay Johns put it: “Like all great music, Mannenberg is both specific and universal.” It has “served as the voice of the oppressed, the marginalised and the poor throughout the world”.
He goes on: “Today, it is still a beloved anthem of hope, resistance and resilience, and a celebration of human dignity in the face of brutality and evil. We can also hear in those entrancing chords and ebullient Cape jazz rhythms a life-affirming joy and the desire to survive against all odds.”
What more could you want from an anthem?[