History of Hymns: “Siyahamba”

by C. Michael Hawn

South African Freedom Song;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2235-b.

Siyahamb’ ekukhanyen’ kwen khos’. (Zulu/Xhosa)

South African freedom songs have become more common in North American hymnals. For those of us in North America, “Siyahamba” is among the easiest learned of all African Christian songs. An understanding of the use and meaning of the freedom songs in their original context may increase their significance for us.

Sharpeville Massacre, South AfricaThese are songs of protest, struggle, and solidarity. The process of protest, struggle, and solidarity for black South Africans may be traced to events from the 1960s through the 1990s. One of the most infamous massacres against black South Africans took place in the township of Sharpeville on March 21, 1960, when the police opened fire on a group demonstrating against pass laws, killing 69 people.  Later, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa captured the attention of the world during the 1980s. News reports from CNN often included black South Africans and their supporters singing songs of freedom in the years just before Nelson Mandela became the first black president in 1994.

The roots of these songs may be found in the long history of trade, commerce, and European missions with South Africa, beginning with the Dutch in the middle of the seventeenth century. The musical result was a synthesis of traditional African music and Western hymnody. South African freedom songs like “Siyahamba” often originated with Amadodana, a Methodist young men’s group.

Usually translated as “We are marching in the light of God,” “Siyahamba” contains layers of meaning. “We” may be seen as a word of community—the community of those living and the community of the living dead. In African traditional society, those who have died are still with us, and their witness may influence the actions of the living. “Marching” is an action that unifies the community as they move physically and spiritually in the same direction. It is a bodily, kinesthetic response to the leading of the Spirit rather than a passive acquiescence. See the Mwamba Children’s Choir demonstrating a spirited musical and physical interpretation of the song (YouTube Video).

“The Light of God” has meaning on several levels. While it is a symbol of creation and of Jesus Christ, the light of the world, it is also a common refrain in songs of healing or ngoma throughout Southern and Central Africa. According to Christian anthropologist John Janzen, “Let darkness be replaced with light” is coded language for “seeing clearly ” (John M. Janzen, Ngoma: Discourses on Healing in Central and Southern Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, 111-18). God is the source of clear sight in the midst of the struggle, the source of discernment and truth. As we march, we can see our way ahead. Our path is clear. Where there is light, there is hope.

When this message is amplified with engaging music, the words become embodied in the lives of the community that sing and dance it. The song accommodates and even facilitates a growing, evolving community of believers. “We are marching,” knowing that the living dead are singing with us, and this gives us courage and hope. When this song is brought into worship as a processional, the walls of the church become permeable, and those who sing it bring with them the struggle of the streets and sanctify that struggle in worship.

The freedom songs of South Africa were disseminated to the Western world in the mid-1980s largely through the work of Anders Nyberg (b. 1955) under the sponsorship of the Church of Sweden Mission (Lutheran). Nyberg took his Swedish choir, Fjedur, to South Africa in the 1970s. The synergy between the choir from Sweden, one of the most choral cultures in the world, and choirs from South Africa, the most choral culture on that continent, provided the energy to propel these songs throughout the world. Members of Fjedur, in turn, learned songs from South African choirs. Many of these songs were from the liberation movement of black South Africans against apartheid white rule.

Nyberg’s transcriptions were sung throughout Sweden and disseminated broadly thorough publications in Europe and the United States. International meetings of the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches provided opportunities for people to hear and sing these songs. The publication of the collection Freedom Is Coming: Songs of Protest and Praise from South Africa (1984) by the Swedish publisher Utryck with accompanying CD, disseminated through the Walton Music Corporation in the United States, captured the imagination of church choirs in the United States, where now several of the songs from this collection are found in many hymnals and hymnal supplements. In addition to “Siyahamba,” the songs “Freedom Is Coming” and “Thuma Mina” (“Send Us, Lord”) are some of the more popular songs known by congregations.

Nyberg and his wife Jennifer Ferguson hold dual Swedish and South African citizenship, dividing their time between the two countries. Their website provides more details about their activities and music making:  

In 2004, I interviewed several members of Nyberg’s Fjedur choir in Uppsala, Sweden. They described their trips to South Africa as transformative. Many in the choir returned to teach South African songs in churches throughout Sweden. Indeed, in several trips to South Africa, I almost always encounter a church group from Sweden that is singing these songs enthusiastically. While studying in South Africa in 2008, I participated in a Black Methodist service where freedom songs were sung alongside translations of Western hymns, South African adaptations of Anglican chant, and songs with more traditional musical roots. They remain an important genre, even in the post-apartheid years.

I have enjoyed experiencing the spread of South African freedom songs in other places in the world. Two examples must suffice. In 1991, I led a group of musicians to Haiti for a music camp. Because of the association with Voodoo, Haitian Christians rarely sing in churches. Working with Haitian missionaries, I taught Creole translations of several South African songs to congregations and those attending the music camp. These songs were enthusiastically received and served as a musical bridge from Africa to the Haitian culture because of the themes of liberation and accessible musical style.

In 2004, I was teaching in Taiwan. I encountered a Presbyterian youth choir among the Paiwan people in the south of the country. They wanted to sing for me. The first song was “Freedom Is Coming” (The Faith We Sing No. 2192), sung in Mandarin. In the context of this country, the freedom was from the oppressive regime of Chaing Kai-shek, whose Chinese National Party (KMT) limited the liberties of the Taiwanese people until they were able to hold their first free elections in 1996.

When we sing these songs in our worship, we capture not only the joy of South Africans, but also join in their struggle for freedom and the hope that comes from singing in solidarity.



C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.

Categories: History of Hymns