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Mayibuye! The 100-year-old slogan that’s stirred up divisions in South Africa’s elections

POLITICAL parties the world over use slogans, icons, colours, names and flags to establish their political and historical credentials. What happens when two political parties lay claim to the same history and the same symbolic capital?

In South Africa, a conflict of this kind is being played out between the governing African National Congress (ANC) party led by President Cyril Ramaphosa and the breakaway party Umkhonto weSizwe, (MK Party) associated with former president Jacob Zuma.

At the centre of the fight between the rival parties is the word “mayibuye”, which has been deployed as an election slogan for the MK Party. Mayibuye is a word in South Africa’s isiXhosa language which can be translated as “may it return” or “may it be restored”. Made popular by the ANC and the Communist Party of South Africa over 100 years ago, it is still widely used in songs and as a slogan for liberation.

The fight against apartheid was waged by many movements and individuals – Ramaphosa and Zuma among them – but victory was claimed by the ANC and its military wing Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation). Zuma, then an ANC leader, was the country’s third president after democracy in 1994. But he was removed from power by Ramaphosa amid corruption claims. In 2023 Zuma formed the MK Party to challenge the ANC in the 2024 elections.

Both parties, in short, lay claim to the same liberation history and the same weighty symbols: they both use the colours of national liberation (black, green and gold), the name Umkhonto weSizwe and the slogan “Mayibuye!”.

The ruling ANC’s poster (front) uses the same colours as those adopted by the MK Party. Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

The new prominence of the slogan in the public domain prompts questions about when it first emerged, how it has been used and who has claimed it in the past. As a researcher working at the intersections of South African newspaper history, memory studies and popular intellectual history, I turn to the newspaper archive to trace the story of the slogan – and the political and emotional work it has been called upon to do.

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My research on “Mayibuye!” will inform a chapter in the forthcoming academic book Memory and the Language of Contention (Brill). This forms part of a larger study of activist political slogans and their ability to conjure memory.

I argue that by drawing on the symbolic and historical resources of the “Mayibuye!” slogan, the MK Party casts doubt on the struggle credentials of the ANC and its rhetoric of a “better life” – and positions itself as the true origin and inheritor of the South African liberation movement. To understand how, one must go back in history.

The history of Mayibuye!

When linked to the idea of Africa, the liberation slogan “Mayibuye iAfrika!” (May Africa return! or Come back Africa!) is a potent call for social justice and restoration.

According to Edward Roux, author of the first history of Black resistance struggles in South Africa, the phrase was first popularised in the early 1920s in the multilingual ANC-aligned newspaper Abantu-Batho, launched in 1912, the same year as the founding of the ANC.

This association is confirmed in the very few copies of the newspaper still in existence. Appearing in bold capitals in an advertisement for the newspaper itself, the slogan MAYIBUYE!! is used to reinforce its role in the struggle for Black rights. In this context, “Mayibuye!” is best understood not as a call to return to a pre-colonial idyll, but rather as a claim for the return of Africa to the dispossessed. A powerful reminder of the history of colonial conquest.

A 1931 use of the word ‘mayibuye’. National Library of South Africa

“Mayibuye” makes a striking reappearance in the mid-1920s in several poems by the formidable isiXhosa poet Nontsisi Mqgwetho. These appeared in the Chamber of Mines-sponsored newspaper Umteteli wa Bantu. Her poem Mayibuye iAfrika! Awu! draws on the accepted meaning of the phrase as a prophecy of restoration. But it suggests, in her characteristically outspoken style, that the problem also lies with those who “sit on the fence, won’t take a stand”; “who betray your own people to bolster the whites”.

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Around the same time, “Mayibuye!” was adopted as the slogan of the League of African Rights, an unofficial organisation of the Communist Party of South Africa established in 1929 as a way to widen its support base. According to Roux, the party’s song Mayibuye was sung to the tune of the popular US traditional song Oh My Darling, Clementine.

In January 1930 the slogan appears again, this time as part of the masthead of the multilingual Communist Party of South Africa newspaper Umsebenzi, where it is spliced with the workers’ symbol of the hammer and sickle. This coincides with the shift in official party policy to the struggle for Black rights as the first stage towards socialism.

The slogan was quickly established as the “battle-cry of the publication” and appeared frequently in many of Umsebenzi’s political cartoons. Versions of the Mayibuye song, in the isiXhosa, Sesotho and Afrikaans languages, were printed in the newspaper and sung at political rallies.

Frequently invoked in the context of local Black struggles, the slogan is strongly associated with the history of colonial plunder and, especially, the theft of land.

Prophecy and lament

The slogan’s appearance across several newspapers and political contexts is testament to its multifaceted meanings and complex legacy. Its history reveals its significance as both a prophecy of heroic overcoming and a sorrowful lament, one which imagines a future emancipation through the idea of return.

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In later years, “Mayibuye!” would become entrenched as a popular rallying cry of the ANC, accompanied, from the 1940s onwards, with the ANC salute (raised right fist with thumb pointing to the right shoulder). In these contexts, it combined an unambiguous statement of militancy and defiance with the search for self-determination.

In 2024, the MK Party’s use of this slogan draws a direct line to the land-centred, anticolonial and freedom-oriented rhetoric of its early ANC and Communist Party of South Africa versions. As the website logo affirms, it is “Time to rise up | Isikhathi sokuvuka | Ke nako ya go tsoga”.

The reappearance of “Mayibuye!” in the present – and its strong associations with the party’s mission of “reclaiming our birthright” – suggests not only that the anticolonial struggle has not been completed but also that the struggle for freedom has barely begun.

CORINNE SANDWITH, Professor of Literature, University of Pretoria

By CORINNE SANDWITH

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