“Composed in the form of a blessing, the hymn offers a message of unity and uplift and an exhortation to act morally and spiritually on behalf of the entire African continent,” David Coplan and Bennetta Jules-Rosette wrote about the song’s role (pdf). It was “an emblem of hope and unity.”

Sontonga’s hymn changed over time as its lines were modified, added to, and translated into other languages—each revision reinforcing its powerful symbolism. These changes presented ”different versions of a virtual Africa yet to be born,” Coplan and Jules-Rosette explain. “Emerging out of a profound sense of discontent with a social world in which the creative process of self-definition and re-definition was forcibly denied, all the transmutations of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika… conclude with the hope for change.”

You can read Sontonga’s original verses here, while the full version of the South African national anthem appears below.

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