Mama Africa – A Life

Mama Africa – A Life

I always wanted to leave home.  I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back.  Maybe if I knew, I never would have left.  It is kind of painful to be away from everything you’ve ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile.  No matter where you go there are times when people show you kindness and love, and there are times when they make you know hat you are with them, but not of them.  That’s when it hurts.  — Zenzile Miriam Makeba

The South African musician Miriam Makeba had her passport revoked soon after the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960.  At the time she was in the United States, brought by her mentor Harry Belafonte.  Although she released music and worked hard giving interviews, money was still short and she occasionally still needed to find work as a babysitter – a role not unfamiliar to Makeba, as she had needed to find work as a domestic in her native South Africa from a young age in order for her family to eat and have a place to live.  

Miriam Makeba’s powerful voice led to a mentor relationship with Harry Belafonte, who brought her to the United States.

First came the news of the death of two of her uncles – amongst the 250 casualties of Sharpeville.  Then, quick on the heels of that news, came the death of her mother.  It was when attempting to return home for her mother’s funeral and to fetch her daughter Bongi that Makeba found out that the South African apartheid government had made it impossible for her to return.  

She would not set foot on South African soil again until 10 June 1990.

Makeba was totally perplexed by the actions of the apartheid government – she had been very circumspect in both her performances and interviews, careful to never say anything that might be construed as anti-government back home.  She was worried about her family, including her daughter, which were still living under the South African apartheid system.  

Police attack demonstrators during the Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960.

But somehow she had still been targeted.  And that, combined with the horrors of Sharpeville and her banishment from her mother’s funeral, were the last straw.  Miriam Makeba began to transform into the exiled voice of a nation.

Makeba had a unique voice.  In the United States, which was in the midst of its Civil Rights Movement, she had a broad cross cultural appeal. Whites Americans saw her as foreign and exotic – and perhaps a way to confront the evils of institutionalized racism without shouldering the whole blame, while black Americans identified with the struggles of apartheid.  Her music was able to reach across divides, and in 1962 she had tangible proof of this:  she was invited to sing for President John F. Kennedy’s birthday celebration at Madison Square Garden.  The world remembers Marilyn Monroe’s breathy rendition of “Happy Birthday”, but it was Miriam Makeba that President Kennedy requested be brought back so that he could meet her in person.  Harry Belafonte had to send a car to fetch the young singer, who had already gone home for the night. 

Miriam Makeba sings to President John F. Kennedy in 1962

But Makeba would be performing in front of an even larger audience – in 1962 and 1964 she testified about the situation in South Africa in front of the United Nations.  In this testimony she drove home two main methods of limiting the power of the ruling National Party:  1) she requested that sanctions be brought against the National Party, and 2) she requested an arms embargo to the nation, as any weapons imported were likely to be used against black women and children.  

Testimony in front of the United Nations

Her testimony provoked the South African government even further.  Now, not merely content with cancelling her passport, they revoked her citizenship.  Miriam Makeba was stateless – although not for long.  Several nations stepped into the gap, and Makeba was granted honorary citizenship in ten countries.  

During the 1960s, Makeba continued to hold a broad appeal.  She was active in anti-racism politics, singing at a Southern Christian Leadership Conference benefit in 1962 and being refused entry into a diner after the concert due to Jim Crow laws.  Activists and artists continued to pass through her home, and she performed a highly rated special in 1966 with Harry Belafonte entitled, “An Evening With Belafonte and Makeba” which dealt with the issues of South Africa under apartheid.  Her songs “Pata Pata” and “Qongqothwane” (The Click Song) were hits.

But although Makeba was given a voice that could say more than many others without angering white Americans, there was still a point that was considered too far.  That point came in 1968 when Miriam Makeba and Stokely Carmichael married.  It was Makeba’s fourth marriage, and the one that would generate the most controversy. 

Miriam Makeba and Stokely Carmichael

Carmichael, a native of Trinidad, caused intense uneasiness in much of white America.  He was not just seen as a radical, but as a revolutionary whose calls for black power were referring to violent overthrows of white America.  

Although Makeba insisted that her marriage to Carmichael was apolitical, her appearances were cancelled en masse and music sales dropped like a stone. Law enforcement followed and surveilled them.  Finally, when the two attempted to return from a trip to the Bahamas, they were refused entry back into the United States.  

Makeba and Carmichael, who soon changed his name to Kwame Ture, made their way to Guinea.  Although they separated in 1973, Makeba would live in Guinea for 15 years, traveling the African continent and performing at events for African independence.  She also represented Guinea at the United Nations in 1975.  It was during this period that her tireless work was recognized with the nickname, “Mama Africa.”

On 16 June 1976, the South African government responded to student protests against the mandatory use of Afrikaans in schools with extreme violence.  The Soweto Uprising shocked white South Africans and the world, and it led to a musical collaboration between Miriam Makeba and her ex-husband Hugh Masakela called “Soweto Blues”.  The lyrics of the song are heart-rending.

Children were flying bullets dying; the mothers screaming and crying

Soweto Blues became a staple of Makeba’s performances, and became a rallying point in the anti-apartheid movement.

In 1985 Makeba experienced yet more tragedy; her daughter Bongi died in childbirth.  Makeba decided that it would be best for her two grandchildren, whom she was now raising, to move from Guinea to Belgium.  

The move took place as it was becoming more and more obvious that the apartheid government of South Africa could no longer stand.  In 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and at his urging Miriam Makeba finally returned to the country she had left and been banned from in 1959.  Thirty-one years later she was back on her home soil.

But Miriam Makeba was still not able to rest.  A survivor of both breast cancer and cervical cancer, a tireless campaigner for human rights, and a matchless musical talent; Makeba was still plagued with monetary problems that created a need for her continual performances.  She continued concerts and appeared in TV shows and movies. 

Miriam Makeba performed right up to the end of her life.  On 9 November 2008, after singing her signature song “Pata Pata” at Castel Volturno in Italy, she collapsed after a heart attack.

Miriam Makeba left behind a legacy of a woman who used her vocal gift to bring attention to the plight of people held back by institutionalized racism.  Born in a Johannesburg township, she became a sought-after voice by those in the highest positions of governments.  The music she left behind is timeless, and will give generations to come a view of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.


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