When In Doubt, Blame The French: What To Do About An Anthem Malfunction

November 20, 2009, 8:55 am

As anyone who has been following me on Face Book knows, I have been spending some of my free time on sports since I have been here. There’s a show called Indian Cricket Highlights, about a sport I understand not at all, and my new favorite pastime is World Cup football. Indeed, all of South Africa is gearing up for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, to be held in a brand new stadium in Cape Town next winter (our summer).

Why are sports such a big deal here? I can only guess. Although fans in South Africa are clearly engaged with following leagues in many nations, as people my age may recall, one form of pressure put on the apartheid regime in the 1980s (as American corporations were happily doing business here and universities fought their students over the ethics of investing in corporations that profited from apartheid labor economics) was to bar South Africa from international athletic competition. Although journalist Adam Hochschild, in his book The Mirror at Midnight (1984), describes South Africa as a notoriously “sports-mad culture,” it isn’t clear to me that this is more so here than in the United States. One can only imagine the howls of hurt and outrage from the United States were other nations to have protested George Bush’s illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in a similar way.

Given this political history, in addition to the promise of sorely needed construction and service jobs, the World Cup may be symbolically important for the international profile of a recently democratic state that still so troubled by poverty, violence and unemployment. Budding C.L.R. James that I aspire to be, recently I have been riveted as well by an ongoing scandal in the politics of sport here: the “butchering” of the South African National anthem by South African Rasta singer Ras Dumisani prior to the rugby match between the Springboks and France played in Toulouse last Friday.

Anthems are often difficult to sing, and this one seems to present more challenges than most. Sung in five languages — Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, English and Afrikaans — it is a blend of old and new, combining parts of the African National Congress (ANC) protest hymn “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” with the pre-1994 anthem, “Die Stem van Suid-Afrika/The Voice of South Africa.” And yet, since it doesn’t seem like to much to ask for one’s anthem to be sung properly, some have inferred — or said directly — that the French were playing mind games with the Springboks by deliberately hiring an incompetent singer. “The French from as early as 1959 were portrayed by one of their famous writers, Rene Goscinny, as shrewd, small sized warriors and therefore the birth of the well known Asterix,” wrote one person who commented on this story in The Cape Times. “Asterix had a secret weapon called Cacofonix. a man that sang so badly that it would start rain and thunderstorms. The singing was so bad that all enemies would eventually surrender. Was this, maybe, the old French ploy when The South African Anthem was sung?”

Intentionally or unintentionally, the Springboks were stung and insulted, becoming emotionally unglued as they tried, unsuccessfully, to complete their normal pre-game ritual by singing along lustily. Apparently this was a disruption equivalent to preventing New Zealand’s All-Blacks from performing a haka prior to a test match. One Springbok confessed after the loss that he had begun to weep at the pain of hearing the beloved anthem mangled and at his own frustrated efforts to sing the words correctly. Absent their pre-game ritual, the Springboks lost the match 20-13. Furious, the South African Rugby Union (SARU) has received an apology from its French counterpart, and from Dumisani — although the singer also noted “that the French were to blame” for “sabotaging my performance with an old microphone and a bunch of school kids.”

In an unfortunate (and possibly unintentional) reference to a recent political past, SA Rugby Blog reports the emergence of a Face Book site called Ban Ras Dumisani from ever singing again: a recent check revealed that it has acquired almost 7,000 fans. The plot thickens, however, since it was revealed almost immediately that Dumisani’s name had been provided by the South African embassy in France. An anonymous source has suggested that the performer was probably stoned when he meandered his way tonelessly though the anthem, forgetting words and sometimes substituting alternative ones. This unnamed source suggested to the Cape Times that Dumisani had done well in rehearsal, but that by the time of the match “his condition was such that it was unlikely he would perform nicely.”

Hence, the political story has shifted from the international sphere to the domestic. Although SARU’s Oregan Hoskins is ready to close the book on this matter following the French apology (and really, when you compare it to accounting for the bad planning that went into the Maginot Line, this must have been an easy apology to make), South Africa’s politicians have just begun to get into the game. Litho Suka, a Member of Parliament representing the ANC “has suggested that those who butcher South Africa’s national anthem be charged with treason,” and that Dumisani should be hauled up before a judge. The chairman of the National Assembly’s sports committee, Butana Komphela, says that his committee will be meeting with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation to demand some accountability from the embassy as well. The Sports Committee will be seeking assurances that the government will act “to ensure that all South African embassies have the correct version of the national anthem, the correct flag and will be able to source credible singers for national events taking place outside the country.”

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