By Colleen Dardagan

Are South Africans proud to sing their national anthem, do they know what it means and should it be changed?

These were some of the questions The Mercury posed to school principals, pupils and sports bodies following KZN Premier Zwele Mkhize signalling his disappointment at how Nkosi Sikelel'iAfrika had been sung at a construction and property conference hosted for women by the Department of Public Works last week.

Mkhize lashed out at the behaviour of the more than 500 women who attended the function, saying they had treated a sacred national symbol with disrespect.

"Some of you had your hats on, others were chewing gum and others were talking on their cellphones or walking around. This is not allowed. Also, you don't just pick the language you like - there are no short cuts. You don't keep quiet when they stop the Zulu, or only sing the Afrikaans or English because you like that part.

"In any country the national anthem is the most important symbol of the rights of that country. When an army goes to war they take two sacred things with them, their flag and their anthem.

"In South Africa we have a special democracy, yet it seems we don't think it's a big deal. We take every opportunity to run it down. I think we should have cards printed out and handed to everybody so that we can learn to sing our national anthem properly. It's very important."

President Jacob Zuma, in his first State of the Nation address earlier this year, said special attention would be paid to national symbols.

"We must build a common national identity and patriotism. We must develop a common attachment to our country, our constitution and the national symbols. In this spirit, we will promote the national anthem and our country's flag and all other national symbols.

"Our children, from an early age, must be taught to pay allegiance to the constitution and the national symbols, and know what it means to be South African citizens."

Children, educated in South Africa pre-1994, not only learned the anthem at school as a matter of course, but were required to sing it at least once a week during school assemblies.

Anne Fincham, marketing director at Epworth School, said she remembered singing Die Stem before the start of movies in South Africa as well.

"And we used to sing it at least once a week at school. Nowadays the children are just too busy to spend another couple of minutes at an assembly to sing the national anthem."

Trevor Kershaw, headmaster of Glenwood High School, Trevor Cowie, acting headmaster at Westville Boys' High School, and Graham Bennetts, from Maritzburg College, said the anthem was usually only sung two or three times a year at special events.

"I agree we don't sing it often enough. The boys learn how to sing it when they arrive at the school and they are taught what it means, but they don't really sing it properly. That mass participation is just not there anymore," said Kershaw.

Ronel Laidlaw-Perks , director of music at Durban Girls' College, said of the anthem: "It's part of life and all of us should know the words properly. The main thrust must be to keep it alive and use it to build national pride. It's very important to pay attention to the language because most people only sing the part that they know. The children though are more familiar with it than most adults."

Grade 7 pupil at St Henry's Marist Brothers, Jean-Luc Tostee, said he had learned the national anthem because he loved rugby. "I always sing it with the rugby team. It's great, it's all about our rainbow nation and how we all came together."

Savannah Cozzi, also in Grade 7 at the school, said the anthem made her very proud. "Showing disrespect to the anthem shows that you don't respect all our different cultures. This is our country and we should all be proud of it," she said.

Pam Ngcobo, from Durban Girls' College, said it was a sacred prayer.

"And we do need to learn the Afrikaans and English words as well and sing them. It's a song that unites people."

Hans Scriba, head of the Sharks Rugby Academy, said once the players were selected for the national team, knowing the anthem and singing it properly were mandatory.

"It's the first thing they have to do when they are selected, no matter what age group. They have to learn the national anthem. Everyone should learn it. We have taken it for granted that the players remember it from their school days."

Regional head of the South African Football Association, Alpha Mchunu, said a country could not let its anthem fade to a murmur.

"It's an area of concern. Unfortunately there is no uniformity in the way people respect the national anthem and it's true meaning.

"It's a prayer and it's not taken seriously.

"At some football matches I have seen people not even standing up - most of them take pop songs more seriously.

"It's more about education and we have to mobilise everybody throughout the (football) federations, all the way from the juniors right to the very top."

And, should it be changed?

"I wouldn't spearhead such a movement, it's too special and represents our history," said Mchunu.

Laidlaw-Perks, as a music teacher, said she first had her doubts about the anthem as a composition.

"Initially I thought it was forced and the music doesn't flow naturally. The debate will rage on forever and musicians will never be happy, but I believe it serves a purpose and that is to build national pride. So, no, I wouldn't change it."

While some pupils felt the words could be more simple, most agreed the anthem was special and should remain unchanged.

"How many thousands of people who have gone before us have sung these words? It reminds us of how much it took to get us to where we are now and how many people died so we can be here today singing these words.

"If it were to be changed it would be like erasing our history," said one.

This is the official version of the national anthem, combining Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika and Die Stem/ The Call of South Africa:

Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, Maluphakanyisw' uphondo lwayo,Yizwa imithandazo yethu,

Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.

Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,

O fedise dintwa la matshwenyeho,

O se boloke,

O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,Setjhaba sa South Afrika - South Afrika.

Uit die blou van onse hemel,

Uit die diepte van ons see,

Oor ons ewige gebergtes,

Waar die kranse antwoord gee,

Sounds the call to come together,

And united we shall stand,Let us live and strive for freedom,

In South Africa our land.