Sounding the call

OK, so some dopey Rasta dude screwed up the South African national anthem on international TV. Big oops. But while the choice of singer was unfortunate and careless, it hardly qualifies as a catastrophe. After all, we’ve got plenty of real problems to worry about. Nevertheless, everybody is up in arms, officials are scrambling to cover their asses and ‘Anthemgate’ has already been given the standard suffix for a scandal.

Now, I’m not saying that fumbling the anthem in a global forum isn’t a serious breach of national etiquette. I also agree that it is slightly embarrassing to the country and downright offensive to many self-respecting South Africans. However, let’s get a bit of perspective here…

This it’s not the first time an unqualified singer has been tasked with singing an anthem. In America, the revered ‘Star Spangled Banner’ has been mutilated on a number of occasions. In the late 1960s, Jose Feliciano and Jimi Hendrix both caused an uproar by reinterpreting the anthem (as blues and rock respectively). The loungy crooner Robert Goulet also bombed when he erroneously sang ‘oh say can you see by the dawn’s early night’ . And in 1990, the comedian Roseanne Barr earned the nation’s enduring enmity by screeching the anthem, then topped the performance by grabbing her crotch and spitting on the ground.

Naturally, each of these ‘star mangled banners’ was controversial and in Roseanne’s case, actually damaged her career. Once again, this reaction is understandable, especially in the USA where symbols of national identity are pathologically sacrosanct. So, by messing up the anthem on TV, Roseanne may as well have taken a dump on a slice of apple pie and wiped her bum with the American flag.

But, for once, South Africans have outdone the Americans in terms of righteous indignation. Everyone is furious, and that might not be a bad thing. Surely, the negative reactions to the regrettable incident in France shows that we care about national symbols and are thus developing a sense of pride in our country and ourselves?

Well, no. Not really. Instead on focussing on the merits of the singer himself, Anthemgate has blown up into an all too familiar debate about race and politics. Reading the comments posted by readers on various websites has shown that many South Africans have seized on Dumisani’s inadequate vocals as further proof that the country is going down the toilet. Others say that it’s a case of Affirmative Action run amok since Johnny Clegg would have done a much better job (and he’s big in France). Then there are the chorus of people who blame everything on Zuma/Malema and see no reason why this should be any different. In short, it really has nothing to do with the anthem and everything to do with the same old axes that people like to grind.

Some have even suggested that the problem here is with the anthem itself. Our current national hymn is certainly fraught with difficult connotations. So, perhaps we need a new anthem that is unencumbered from the past. We could run a national competition, like they did for the new flag. Then we could set up a ‘National Anthem Idols’ so that the public could vote for their favourite song. It would be huge! In fact, make that idea © David Fleminger.

But I’m getting carried away…

My point is that all this is beside the point. So, instead of carping about the details, let’s see what lessons we can learn from the Anthemgate saga. Firstly, Ras Dumisani probably shouldn’t be allowed to perform in the opening ceremony of the World Cup next year. Secondly, the various sporting organisations that set up these international events should do a bit of homework and draw up a list of qualified singers who can do justice to the anthem. To absolve themselves of responsibility suggests laziness and apathy. Thirdly, if we are so precious about our national anthem then we should all learn the bloody words.

Finally, and most significantly, I think we should take a positive message out of this whole fiasco. As I mentioned, despite the prevailing climate of negativity, Anthemgate has shown that South Africans are generally protective of their beautiful country. Why else would we get upset when a duff singer messes up Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika?

So, let’s turn over a new leaf and embrace our South African-ness, starting with the national anthem. Yes, it’s a rather lugubrious little ditty. And yes, it’s an incongruous hybrid of 4 languages and two totally different tunes. But as such it is an honest reflection of our complex national identity, in all its misshapen glory.

In essence, I guess I am saying that we should try to be more patriotic towards our beloved country. When things go wrong in the United States (and they often do) the Americans do not respond by threatening to emigrate. That’s because they are secure in their belief that they are living in the greatest Goddammed country in the whole Goddammed world ever, and any setbacks they encounter are merely speed bumps on the road to a better life in the land of the free etc.

In South Africa, however, our faith in the country (especially as white people) is a lot more equivocal and conditional. Every depressing news story is another reason why we are doomed. Every corrupt politician is another nail in the coffin of our collective hopes. And every single issue degenerates into an unhelpful argument about racism.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t question authority – politicians around the world need to be watched like hawks. I’m also not saying that we must blindly accept the decrees of the state – that would be downright communistic. But I am asserting that we should embrace the fundamental values of South Africa and continue to support our country as we stagger together into the future. What’s wrong with a bit of optimism, people?

In other words, and I never thought I’d say this, I think it’s high time we started behaving more like the Americans. IMHO.

[Originally posted 16/11/2009]

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