The woman behind the national anthem is part of a power couple
It is a passion that saw her become the first woman in South Africa to obtain a doctorate in Music Composition and has resulted in her becoming recognised as one of the most acclaimed composers of our time.
It was the passion that caused her to be directly responsible for the national anthem as we now know it.
As for her husband, Professor Michael Rudolph, his passion took him to growing urban food gardens. “All I knew about gardens was the lawn and how to play rugby or cricket on it,” he says. “I didn’t know one flower from the next, but for whatever reason, I came across this idea of urban gardens and it resonated…
Rudolph’s journey took him from being a local dentist to becoming one of the founders of the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Public Health – and a pioneer of community outreach work, including gardening.
The couple, who have been married for 42 years, might have very different interests, yet both have created works of beauty within their respective realms.
For Zaidel-Rudolph, her involvement with the national anthem started with a call in 1995 from the then minister of arts and culture, Dr Ben Ngubane, requesting her to attend a meeting to produce a composite new anthem.
“Up until then, with the advent of democracy in 1994, President Mandela had said that Die Stem and Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika should be sung side by side at state occasions.”
However, the downside of this was the five-minute, 20-second anthem ceremony which ensued.
“So, the directive from Mandela to the ministry of arts and culture was to form a committee of language and music experts to try to find a way to merge the anthems. The anthem was to be made singable by the general public and it needed to incorporate as many languages as possible.”
At the first meeting, members of the committee were asked to find a way to “merge the anthems musically and ideologically… so as rather to reconcile people than offend people”.
By the next meeting, Zaidel-Rudolph had brainstormed and come up with a plan, which she introduced to the committee.
“My idea was to put Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika first and then to bridge into Die Stem – while cutting out all the repetitions. This made the most sense ideologically and musically!”
While her idea was well received, it was still quite a long process until finalisation.
One of the first cuts, recommended by political activist and Mandela’s close friend, Fatima Meer – and whole-heartedly supported by Zaidel-Rudolph – was to remove the lyrics Woza Moya that when translated mean “Come, oh Spirit”.
Meer suggested that this seemed to reference the Christian holy trinity, which could alienate South Africans of other faiths – and Zaidel-Rudolph, as a proud Jewess, concurred.
In terms of the musicality needs, it was Zaidel-Rudolph who introduced a key modulation – bridging between the different keys of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika and Die Stem.
It was also Zaidel-Rudolph’s suggestion to include English words into the anthem. In fact, the lyrics of the final stanza were written by her, but not before they had gone back and forth for some adjustments according to Cabinet’s requests.
For example, one version included the lines: “We can hear the land rejoicing, with a voice not heard before; let the people of our country, live in peace forever more” and another read: “Let us live and fight for freedom” instead of the final version’s declaration to “strive for freedom”.
Originally, Mandela had requested that the anthem be no longer than two minutes.
By the time she had finished, Zaidel-Rudolph had reduced it to one minute and 50 seconds: “So that was it: chop, chop, chop!” she quips.
While the anthem might be Zaidel-Rudolph’s most widely known work, her full repertoire is vast and full of intricate technical expertise and experimentation.
In particular, she loves combining African rhythms and melodies with Jewish themes.
One of her favourite pieces is the Sefirot Symphony. This orchestral composition is based on Kabbalistic concepts of heavenly and earthly spheres.
“For [the sphere of] Beauty, I used the idea of David’s Harp, and so that section’s instrumentation is with a harp,” she explains as an example of the blending of Judaica into her music.
For her husband, Judaism too has been a core inspiration in his work. “Tikkun olam is a fundamental tenet of Judaism – of identifying things in life that need repairing by helping others who are in need and by utilising available resources and sharing skills,” he explains.
The couple cite a meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1981 in New York as being a defining moment in guiding them towards the kind of contributions they hoped to offer through their work.
“This beautiful man… looked right through me and he said: ‘Continue with your work as a musician.’ I hadn’t said a word,” reminisces Zaidel-Rudolph.
“He said: ‘I will give you a blessing to continue to write music to bring great joy to people.’”
At the time, Rudolph did not know whether he should continue being a dentist in private practice or go full time into public health. The Rebbe gave him a blessing to pursue the latter.
“The brocha from the Rebbe… has continued to give me confidence and security,” he explains.
Having obtained a Master’s degree in Public Health in the 1970s from Harvard University, Rudolph came to serve as head of the department of community dentistry at the University of the Witwatersrand. During the height of apartheid, he became one of a handful of medical professionals organising mobile dental clinics and treatment in areas starved of basic healthcare.
For example, during the 1970s, the Transkei, as it was then known, was home to 3.5 million people – and only four dentists. Rudolph began to organise groups of dental professionals to provide essential services in these under-served areas biannually for a week at a time, making it one of the longest-running outreach projects at Wits University. Similar community outreach programmes still operate today.
His most recent work has been the founding of the Siyakhana food garden initiative, located in a park in Bezuidenhout Valley. While it began in response to research that found that nutrition continues to be a “terribly neglected” aspect of preventative healthcare, the urban garden has expanded into a hub of innovation, research and training across a number of disciplines.
As Rudolph explains, the initiative has transcended “the ‘grass roots’ of just growing cabbage and spinach” to become a site for not only growing but also “facilitating connection between people”.
The couple originally met as a result of many people trying to make a shidduch between them – so much so, jokes Zaidel-Rudolph, that “we couldn’t avoid each other”. They are now proud parents to a bevy of daughters and a grandparents to clan of grandchildren.
Rudolph reflects on how, despite their different and many pursuits, their relationship has always been centred on their great support for each other.