Anthems and cultural awkwardness

May 31, 2015

 I recently attended a book event where two well established young South African writers were reading. Everything proceeded well, until at the end of the event, we were told that there was a ‘surprise’ in store for us. Indeed. The surprise took the form of a young South African opera student who gave us a fevered rendition of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, the South African national anthem. Everyone stood, some with their hands to their breasts in semi religious salute. So far so embarrassing (I’ve not as yet witnessed writers from any other country being subjected to their national anthems being played at the end of their events). Both writers handled the situation admirablly, not flinching.

At this point I was casting about for my coat hoping to make a run for it and shake off the feeling that I had witnessed some kind of cultural faux pas. But before I could escape, the young singer launched into the old South African anthem (Die Stem), the anthem of old apartheid South Africa that has been replaced and is no longer sung at public events. She sang it in Afrikaans with a couple of English verses thrown in at the end for political-correctness-good-measure.This is a perfect example of the awkwardness that people feel around the New South Africa. People don’t seem to know what to do with it. Do we praise it? Do we criticise it? Do we treat it like very young child that is learning to walk and patronise it, and say ‘well done you?’ Or, to continue that analogy do we point out its waywardness and try and discipline to improve its behaviour? 

Was I the only person in that gathering that was crinding with embarassment? Am I just too sensitive around this kind of thing? 

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