11 June 2010

South Africa: Shosholoza - the Unofficial Anthem That Will Inspire Bafana Bafana

It was the soundtrack to Clint Eastwood's Oscar-nominated epic, Invictus. Nelson Mandela hailed it for helping him endure his 27-year jail nightmare. Come this Friday, it promises to be South Africa's battle-cry when the 2010 World Cup commences.

Shosholoza! [See words below]

As far as heart-rending songs go, Shosholoza is one of the best. Among the Zulu, South Africa's most recognizable tribe, no other word inspires them more. Which adds to the irony that Shosoloza, South Africa's unofficial anthem, can be traced back to Ndebele immigrants who trekked to the country in search of work.

The ancient miners from Zimbabwe used to travel by steam train from their homes in the north to toil in South Africa's diamond and gold mines. That explains why the 'sho' sound in Shosholoza is critical; it pays due tribute to the sound made by the steam trains [stimela] as they rambled southwards from then-Rhodesia.

Different versions of the song have been recorded. World-renowned musicians like PJ Powers, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Peter Gabriel, the Soweto Gospel Choir and Belgian genius Helmut Lotti have covered it. But what makes Shosholoza transcend genres and boundaries is the fact that it hasn't, in all its incarnations, lost its inherent DNA as a call to arms.

It remains the unofficial soundtrack to any struggle.

As a song sung under hardship, it is to South Africans what We Shall Overcome is to the universal civil rights movement, a poignant masterpiece to the faith-departed.

In that regard, Bafana Bafana couldn't have found a more appropriate war-cry had they employed both map and compass. With odds stacked firmly against them, Aaron Mokoena and his troops will have to punch above their weight as South Africa hosts the first World Cup on the continent.

The battle is reminiscent of 1995, that memorable year when an infant nation that had just shrugged off the shackles of apartheid hosted the Rugby World Cup. Back then, the Springboks were outsiders, but with Shosholoza coming from its lips, an entire nation rallied behind Captain François Pienaar and his band of dreamers. The team made a mockery of the New Zealand All Blacks and the sheer brute strength of Jonah Lomu to land South Africa the World Cup.

That World Cup victory turned Shosholoza, a song sung during South Africa's most infamous moments, into the anthem of a Rugby team primarily made of white South Africans. A track inspired by deep-rooted heartache had crossed carefully erected racial barriers.

It is Shosholoza's influence on proceedings at the 1995 Rugby World Cup that prompted iconic Hollywood director and Oscar winner, Clint Eastwood to use a studio-recorded version of the song in his 2009 film, Invictus. Starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman, Invictus is the biographical drama portraying Mandela's role in that 1995 Rugby triumph.

Mandela, who personifies the apartheid struggle, revealed his delight at the adoption of the song as a sporting anthem, saying it reflected his hope that international sport would help to build a South African nation in which all people were equal.

The lyrics of Shosholoza urge the worker to "go forward", and in his 1994 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recalls singing the song as he worked in a quarry during his imprisonment on Robben Island.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner describes Shosholoza as, "a song that compares the [apartheid] struggle to the motion of an oncoming train". For a long-term convict forced to endure hard labour, Mandela explains that, "the singing made the work lighter".

In an unwitting portrait of Mandela's daily routine in incarceration, Dugmore Boetie used his novel, Familiarity Is The Kingdom Of The Lost, to describe a scene in which prisoners sung Shosholoza as they worked with pickaxes.

"'Shosholoza!' The convicts in the first row would begin to sing in high-pitched, almost soprano voices. This was the cue for the rest of us to lift our pickaxes high above our heads in one smooth motion and hold them suspended in mid-air...poised for the earthward drive. The bass voices repeated, 'Shosholoza!' The signal to strike. The pickaxes came down swiftly in one smooth motion like conducted lightning bolts piercing the stubborn ground with a forty-in-one sound. 'Ku lezontaba!' Up went the axes to remain poised in the air again, waiting for the bass voices to repeat the word 'Ku lezontaba' before coming down in rhythmical precision."

Simon 'Bull' Lehoko, a revered South African soccer legend who played football during the apartheid era, has, like Mandela, fond memories of Shosholoza.

"The lyrics to Shosholoza are among the most inspired and uplifting I have ever heard. Its tune and words are universal," asserts Lehoko. "It's a song handed down by our ancestors through generations of difficulty. It's a song about faith when none seems available."

Jeff Sebego, a former midfielder alongside Lehoko, concurs: "It's a song that has helped many South Africans endure life's difficulties. It helped, and continues to help, South Africans in every endeavour keep the faith and hope when most people would have given up the fight."

Sung in a "call and response" style, one man sings a solo line and the rest of the group responds. Just listening to this medley, one gets the feeling that every word is a sound rising from the very depths of a tormented soul preaching hope. That hopeful tinge has made the song omnipresent at the very core of the South African national fabric, and a symbol of a nation's resilience.

The title of the song comes from Shosholoza Meyl, the long-distance passenger train service operating in South Africa, and Team Shosholoza, a multi-racial motley crew of sailors that became the first sailing outfit from Africa to set their sights on the prestigious America's Cup.

Team Shosholoza's participation in the oldest sailing competition in the world in 2007 was particularly symbolic since it shattered firm perceptions of the America's Cup as an elitist white man's sport. That Team Shosholoza managed a respectable seventh-place finish in its debut year owed as much to the commitment of its crew as the song Shosholoza that could be heard from the sailing boat.

No one knows who wrote the song or its exact origins, but one thing is for sure; Shosholoza is a law unto itself in South Africa. No visit to the Rainbow Nation is complete without hearing its ear-catching melodies. And with the World Cup upon us, no one visiting or resident in South Africa stands to escape its familiar strains.

The vuvuzelas might have been earmarked as the weapons that will inspire South Africa onwards once the tournament kicks off. But one shouldn't underestimate the uplifting, talismanic potency of Shosholoza, especially when it's bellowed out by a vociferous 90,000-man crowd singing at the top of its lungs.

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Shosholoza (in Zulu)
Shosholoza / Ku lezontaba
Stimela si phum’e / South Africa
Wen’uyabaleka / Ku lezontaba
Stimela si phum’e / South Africa

Shosholoza (in English)

Go forward / Over the mountains
The train is coming from / South Africa
You’re hurrying / Over the mountains
The train is coming from / South Africa

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