The origins of both Enoch Mankayi Sontonga and “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika”, that famous hymn he wrote, are humble and obscure.
Sontonga wrote only the first verse of “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika”.
The Xhosa poet laureate S.E.K. Mqhayi (1875-1945) wrote the additional seven verses of the hymn which was composed in 1897. It was publicly sung in 1899 at the ordination of the Rev. M. Boweni, a Tsonga Methodist minister. The hymn was also commonly sung in the “Native Day Schools” – institutions where black students were allowed to learn.
The Ohlange Zulu Choir, which was founded by the Rev. J.L. Dube, performed the hymn at concerts in Johannesburg and further popularised it.
When exactly Sontanga was born is unknown, but the authoritative website South African History Online lists his date of birth as 1873.
If one considers the obituary written by D.E. Mbane which appeared in Imvo Zabantsundu following Sontonga’s death, it may have been a year earlier. Mbane mentioned that Sontonga was 33 years old when he died and concluded: “He was not sick, except for a stomach ache. He was always saying he was going to die.”
It appears that Sontonga was a photographer. Mbane recalled that Sontonga had asked his wife one Sunday to take a photograph of him, but that she had toothache, which led to his going to a professional photographer to have his portrait taken.
Sontonga was a distinguished and productive poet and on occasion preached in his church.
Enoch Sontonga was born in Uitenhage. He was a member of the Mpinga clan.
It is said that after having been trained as a teacher at the Lovedale College in Alice, he was sent to Johannesburg by ox wagon by the elders of the Methodist Church. There he became an assistant teacher and choirmaster at the newly founded Methodist Church in Nancefield.
At the time of his death he was the choirmaster at the Rev. P.J. Mzimba Church in Johannesburg.
Sontonga had a gift for song. He composed music and wrote the lyrics so that his pupils could perform them.
He wrote his compositions, including “Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika”, in tonic sol-fa on odd sheets of paper and eventually collected them into an exercise book with a view to publishing them.
Sadly, he died before he could achieve his ambition.
Sontanga passed away on 18 April 1905, leaving behind his wife Diana Mgqibisa and a son.