Exiled, still Makeba fought hard
Miriam Makeba was banned from entering her homeland, South Africa in 1960. She was forced into exile where she took up the role of the voice of the voiceless earning herself the name Mama Africa. Through song and speeches, Makeba enlightened the world about the evils of apartheid.
What makes the late South African musician, Miriam Makeba’s legacy live longer than others is her political activism.
Makeba collapsed and died on stage in 2008 in Castel Volturno, Italy.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela described Makeba as the anti-apartheid struggle’s mother.
“She was South Africa's first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Africa. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours,” Mandela had said in a statement.
Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us,” Mandela said.
Born Zenzi Miriam Makeba in 1932 in Prospect Township near Johannesburg in South Africa, she cut her music teeth when she turned out for the school choir.
When she was in her 20s, Miriam was performing professionally and was discovered by the American singer and song-writer Harold George Belafonte (best known as Harry Belafonte) in 1959 for a role in the documentary ‘Come Back, Africa’ about a South African black man during apartheid.
She left South Africa for the US together with Belafonte and was denied entry back into the country in 1960.
She learnt about the apartheid regime’s decision to ban her while flying to South Africa from the United Kingdom to attend her mother’s funeral after being turned away.
Apart from staying in the US, Makeba also made Tanzania, Guinea, Belgium and Ghana her homes while some countries among them Cuba offered to give her passports.
In the end, Makeba had nine passports but no country to call her own since the apartheid regime had destroyed all her citizenship records.
While in exile in the US, Makeba performed during John F Kennedy’s birthday in 1962 and three years later, she featured on Belafonte’s ‘An Evening’ with Belafonte & Makeba, a compilation that carries songs such as ‘Cannon’ and ‘Train Song’.
In 1963, Makeba appeared before a United Nations apartheid special committee to talk about life in South Africa.
When the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was founded in Addis Ababa, Makeba performed for the leaders.
She was also asked to address the OAU conference in Accra, Ghana, in 1964 just when she had married Hugh Masekela.
The marriage lasted until 1966, then Makeba married civil rights campaigner, Trinidadian-American, the Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968.
This marriage put Makeba’s career and life in the US in a very dangerous situation since the Black Panther was an organisation that fought for the rights of the African-Americans.
Makeba’s songs were banned and all her concerts cancelled because of the marriage.
The couple then relocated to Guinea where she befriended President Ahmed Sekou Toure.
Makeba and her husband relocated to Belgium where their marriage failed in 1979.
One of her songs, ‘Sophiatown is Gone’, recalls the good old times of the town that was the only one which had a mixed race population.
The township was razed to the ground by the apartheid regime to give way to the creation of a whites-only suburb of Triomf in 1963.
Writing about the township, Anglican priest Father Trevor Huddleston said the obliteration of Sophiatown meant South Africa lost not only a place but an ideal.
Mandela wrote about the township in his book ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ saying: “Despite the poverty, Sophiatown had a special character.
“For Africans it was the Left Bank in Paris, Greenwich Village in New York, the home of writers, artists, doctors and lawyers. It was bohemian and conventional, lively and sedate.”
This is the town where freedom began especially that it nurtured almost every South African jazz musician among them Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim, Kippie Moeketsi and Johnny Gertze, Dolly Rathebe and Makeba.
In addition, Sophiatown also nurtured some of Africa’s greatest ever writers who made up the Drum Magazine team. These were Nat Nakasa, Can Themba and Henry Nxumalo.
A former Sophiatown gang member, Don Mattero vividly recalls the cultural make-up of the township in his autobiography, ‘Coming of Age in South Africa’ saying: “Africans of all tribes, Indians, Chinese, Jews, mulattos like me with white fathers and black mothers all lived there.
“Mansions and quaint cottages stood side by side with rusty wood-and-iron shacks, locked in a fraternal embrace of filth and felony … The rich and the poor, the exploiters and the exploited, all knitted together in a colourful fabric that ignored race or class structures.”
This is the rich and diverse background which shaped Makeba and prepared her for the role of speaking loud against oppression.