75. Izwe Lesithembiso – The Promised Land
Written & performed by Abaqondisi Brothers
From the CD Izwe Lesithembiso – The Promised Land (Label tbc, South Africa 1998)



We don’t know much about the Abaqondisi Brothers, but we’d like to, because their multilinguality – they perform in IsiXhosa, English, isiZulu, SeSotho and Afrikaans – encapsulates the idea of a unity of difference that underscored the hope for post Apartheid South Africa.

Here’s what we know about them: they are a twelve member a cappella group from Kaya Mandi Township in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town. They formed in the early 1990’s, and sing a mixture of gospel and traditional songs. They also specialise in a style of multi part singing known as Iscathamiya, which was popularised by migrant workers in South Africa, and is referred to on many a website as ‘the music of men surviving in an urban world, yet longing for the space and tranquillity of rural roots and distant families.’

According to Wikipedia, Iscathamiya ‘comes from a Zulu word that means to step softly, or tip-toe. The music is characterised by deep, soft, tight harmonies accompanied with light dance steps.

It had its roots in chants and hymns of the missionary era coupled with traditional call-and-response a-cappella music. Through the 1960s it evolved into the Iscathamiya style we know today. It became known internationally through the performances of groups such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo with Joseph Shabalala.

The music is typically a four-part call-and-response male choral style, associated with Zulu migrant workers. The singers stand alongside each other, tip-toeing in place and, in typical Zulu fashion, emphasising passages by stamping in unison.

Isicathamiya choirs are traditionally all male. Its roots reach back before the turn of the 20th century, when numerous men left the homelands in order to search for work in the cities. As many of the tribesmen became urbanized, the style was forgotten through much of the 20th century.

Today, Isicathamiya competitions in Johannesburg and Durban take place on Saturday nights, with up to 30 choirs performing from 8 pm to 8 am the following morning’.

Reading this, the group sound like a fusion of languages and vocal styles of some of Apartheid’s opposing historical (and political) forces, its early Christian past, and South Africa’s contemporary pop lineage, and appear to suggest a musical representation of the unity of diversity that triumphed over Apartheid: in 1998, the year in which Izwe Lesithembiso – The Promised Land was released, the Abaqondisi Brothers, led by lead vocalist Elvis Mongezi Hermans, performed at the 80th birthday of president Nelson Mandela.

What’s interesting about the song, before we consider the sound, the music or the lyrics or the vocal performance, is that by its title alone it brings the new South Africa into the Promised Land trope while also drawing a connection with South Africa’s past, the 17th century, when the first Dutch migrants arrived in South Africa, and the ways in which they used the trope – as a political and poetic means of conferring divine sanction on their presence, role, and identity in the region as they (almost) conquered its indigenous people.

What struck us was the possibility that the differences between the uses of the trope by the Abaqondisi Brothers and the founders of apartheid suggested: Hermans describes the Abaqondisi Brothers music as a means of building bridges and promoting unity between South Africa’s diverse communities, which couldn’t be more opposed to apartheid’s project.

We’ve sent Hermans an email for some more info on the group. Here’s hoping we get a response *. In the meantime, here is something by Roy H May Jr., an extract from his book Joshua and the Promised Land, which we came across on the website http://gbgm-umc.org/umw/joshua/apartheid.html on the use of the Promised Land trope in the Afrikaner imagination:

‘‘Apartheid and the Promised Land – Afrikaners and the ‘Great Trek’

When Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa in 1994, nearly fifty years of official, rigid racial segregation called apartheid ended. Apartheid became official policy following the 1948 electoral victory by the National Party. That party’s ideological roots were in the historical experience of the Dutch-origin ‘Afrikaners.’ Especially important was their sense of divine election. They too understood themselves as God’s Chosen People. South Africa was their Promised Land. Indeed, through the years the Chaplain’s Services of the South African Defence Forces appealed to Holy War to justify military enforcement of the country’s rigid racial segregation. (1)

The Dutch arrived on the tip of Africa in 1652 when the Dutch East India Company set up an outpost. Soon after, the Company began bringing settlers from Holland. They became known as the ‘Boers’ or ‘farmers’. However in 1814, the Netherlands ceded its south African territory to the British. Six years later the first English colonists arrived. From then on, the two European groups were in constant conflict over land, minerals, culture and language, and government power.

The Afrikaners believed the British persecuted Dutch settlers. Finally in 1836, the Afrikaners abandoned the Cape area. They set out for the Transvaal region in the north to establish their own republic. This movement north became known as the ‘Great Trek’. In their minds it ‘forms the national epic-formal proof of God’s election of the Afrikaner people and His special destiny for them.’ (2) As they set out in covered wagons, according to their viewpoint they were followed by the British army, like that of Pharaoh, and everywhere were beset by the unbelieving black ‘Canaanites.’ Yet because God’s people acted according to His will, He delivered them out of the hands of their enemies and gave them their freedom in the promised land. (3)

Many Afrikaners died during the trek. Others were killed in battles with Africans. The decisive battle was at Blood River on December 16, 1838. 10,000 Zulu warriors attacked the trekkers. Over 3,000 Zulus were killed. No Afrikaners died. The Afrikaners attributed their victory to God’s intervention. They said it was a covenant God made with them. They established their own republic, but continued to be in conflict with the British over land and minerals. The Afrikaners defeated the British in 1880-1881 in the first Anglo-Boer War. The second Anglo-Boer War ended with the Afrikaners’ decisive defeat in 1902.

This bitter historical experience was perceived as the ‘sacred saga of Afrikanerdom.’ (4) Old Testament stories, especially from the Exodus and Promised Land traditions, were prominent. They were guiding images for their self-understanding. An Afrikaner poet and clergy man, Daniel du Toit aka Toitus, in his poem Verse van Potgieter’s Trek, [1909] put it this way:

But see! The world becomes wilder; the fierce vermin worsen,
stark naked black hordes, following tyrants.
How the handful of trekkers suffer, the freedom seekers, creators of a People.
Just like another Israel, by enemies surrounded, lost in the veld,
but for another Canaan elected, led forward by God’ plan. (5)

The Afrikaners were the Covenant People. Land was central to this self-image. An historian explains, ‘The very spine of Afrikaner history (no less than the historical sense of the Hebrew scriptures upon which it is based) involves the winning of the ‘the Land’ from alien, and indeed, evil forces.’ (6) The land had to be redeemed. These alien and evil forces included the British, but especially the indigenous Africans. They were viewed as inferior. They were Canaanites destined to be the servants of the Afrikaners. (7) Over the years black Africans were thrown off their farms and grazing lands so that extremely few continued to live in the rural areas as landholders.

This saga, viewed as sacred by the Afrikaners, crystallized their cultural identity. It found its political expression and programme in the National Party. This programme was based on racial separateness and the belief that Afrikaners were set apart for a special mission in God’s designs for political organisation. Apartheid and Promised Land went hand in hand.

It’s not surprising that some black South African Christians reject the Biblical texts on Exodus and Promised Land. Itumeleng J. Mosala argues that, since these texts have been used to justify oppression of black Africans, they have lost their moral authority.

Protestations to the effect that white people are misusing the Bible have neither empowered black people to deliver themselves from this white slavery nor successfully explained to anybody, except the beneficiaries of apartheid, why such a tradition of conquest exists in the Bible in the first place. My contention is that the only adequate and honest explanation is that not all the Bible is on the side of human rights or of oppressed and exploited people. From his [Mosala’s] perspective, the stories are ‘codes’ to justify domination. (8)’

Thinking about Mosala’s assessment, we’d be intrigued to hear whether or how the Abaqondisi Brothers have played with and perhaps revalued and maybe even transformed this relationship to these tropes. By the way, the Abaqondisi Brother’s name translates into English as Brothers of Understanding.

* Postscript: A message from Elvis Mongezi Hermans

A few months after writing this we received a very nice response from Elvis, who kindly sent us an MP3 of Izwe Lesithembiso and also gave us the lyrics to Izwe Lesithembiso – The Promised Land, which are as follows:

Here is a promise
Hear me out all of you, here comes the good news
The news of new hope we were promised in the ancient times

It was so difficult during the days of King Sabatha
During the days of King Hintsa and the days of King Maqoma
Those were the days of torture but the days of joy

We heard while on the West that, the Dlomo clan arrived to enlighten us
In spite of all the difficulties, Mandela promised us the country of
freedom and love

He said: I have fought against all kinds of domination
And I have cherished an ideal of a free and democratic country
In which all persons all shall live in harmony and equality

Beautiful rainbow nation, you must realise that
Time has come, we rejoice the triumph and realisation of a long awaited


Oh why do you hate your neighbour?
Why don’t love your brother?
Why don’t you rejoice the victory of freedom?
Why don’t you fear the anger of God?

Why don’t you love?
Why don’t you care?

This is the land of promise
This is the country of love and joy
This is the Promised Land

Sources quoted in Roy H. May, Jr.’s text:

(1) Gordon Mitchell, ‘Together in the Land: A Reading of the Book of Joshua’, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 134
(Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993), Preface.
(2) T. Dunbar Moodie, ‘The Rise of Afrikanerdom: Power, Apartheid, and the Afrikaner Civil Religion’ (Berkeley: University of California Press,1975), p.3.
(3) Ibid., p.5.
(4) Ibid., p.1.
(5) By the Reverend J.D. du Toit and quoted in Donald Harman Akenson, God’s People: Covenant and Land in South Africa, Israel, and Ulster (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), p.74.
(6) Ibid., p.74.
(7) Ibid.,pp. 75,95.
(8) Itumeleng J. Mosala, Biblical Hermeneutics and Black Theology in South Africa (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 29-30, 10.

Sources consulted

Steven McDonald, All Music Guide www.mp3.com/artist/abaqondisi-brothers



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