A well-known South African singer, Miriam Makeba (1932 – 2008), known as Mama Africa, is also an equality activist and a powerful voice against apartheid. She is committed all her life against racism and injustice.
Daughter of Christina Makeba, a traditional Swazi sangoma and Caswell Makeba, a Xhosa teacher, Zenzile Makeba Qgwashu Nguvama was born on March 4, 1932, in the township of Prospect near Johannesburg. Its name is short for Uzenzile, meaning “You can only blame yourself”. Before Zenzile was born, Christina would have been warned that a childbirth could be fatal. During childbirth, which was particularly difficult and risky, Christina’s mother repeatedly told her Uzenzile, “You can only take it out on yourself”. It is from this episode that the child gets his name.
Zenzile was born in what was then the Union of South Africa, founded in 1910 as the dominion of the British Crown. The state is experiencing a rise of Afrikaner nationalism, an ideology born among these non-English white South Africans, of Dutch, French, German or Scandinavian origin, and which promotes in particular racial segregation. The seeds of apartheid, aimed at geographically and politically separating black and white people in South Africa, were already sown, and racial segregation was a reality.
A childhood in music
When Zenzile is only 18 days old, her mother is sentenced to six months in prison for making and selling umqombothi, a beer made from corn and malt; this is where the newborn spends her first months of life. She was only six when her father died.
Zenzile grew up in a family that loved and practiced music. His mother played several traditional instruments, his father played the piano, and his brother collected records, notably by Ella Fitzgerald, and communicated his musical tastes to him. She sings her first notes while she is only a little girl, at her school in Pretoria. His obvious talent already earned him praise.
Protestant, she sings in church choirs, in English – without speaking the language yet – in Xhosa, in Sotho, in Zulu.
After her father’s death, Zenzile spent some time with her grandmother and a few cousins in Pretoria, while her mother worked for white families in Johannesburg. The little girl also worked as a maid and nanny.
A brief marriage
In 1948, the Reunited National Party and the Afrikaner Party – the Afrikaner nationalists – won the general elections and instituted apartheid, separating populations on racial grounds. The new government consists exclusively of Afrikaners. In June, Prime Minister D.F. Malan said, “Today South Africa is once again our home… May God grant us that it is always ours?”
In 1949, Zenzine, who was only seventeen years old, married James Kubay, a police officer in training, with whom she had a daughter, Bongi Makeba. Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and her husband, who was violent with her, left her after two years of marriage. Zenzine recovered and, living with her mother and daughter, had a variety of jobs, such as child care and taxi-washing. Ten years later, she will also survive cervical cancer.
Beginnings of a musician
Passionate about music and singing, Zenzine began her career with the Cuban Brothers, an all-male band with which she sang covers of popular American songs. She stayed with them for a short time and eventually joined a jazz band, Manhattan Brothers, in 1952, which crossed South African and African-American songs. It is in the same male band that she wins her stage name, Miriam Makeba.
In 1956, Miriam joined this time a female group, the Skylarks, whose music mixes traditional South African songs and jazz. That same year, she recorded in Xhosa and English her first solo success, «Lakutshn, Ilanga», «Lovely lies» in English. The title crossed borders and gained international recognition, particularly in the United States. That same year, she also wrote what is still considered her greatest success, the title Pata Pata – a song that she sees as “one of her most insignificant”.
Now recognized in her art, Miriam uses her reputation and the audience she confers to oppose apartheid. In 1959, she appeared briefly in the anti-apartheid film Come-Back, Africa by Lionel Rogosin. The film, made in secret, mixes fiction and documentary, and Miriam appears there for a few minutes, singing two songs. His role led him to be invited around the world, to Venice for the premiere of the film, to London and to New York to perform. She met many artists including Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Lauren Bacall, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou, Marlon Brando, Louis Armstrong, and Ray Charles… She participates in TV shows, sings in jazz clubs in which she makes a strong impression. She decided to move to New York and, despite her success, experienced a period of financial insecurity that forced her to work as a child care worker.
A long exile
Shortly after the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, during which 69 black demonstrators died under police repression, Miriam Makeba learned of the death of her mother. Two members of his family died in the massacre. When she seeks to return to South Africa for the funeral, she discovers that her South African passport has been cancelled. Her exile will last 31 years. I had always wanted to leave, she said. I never thought they’d stop me from coming back. Maybe if I’d known, I wouldn’t have left. It’s painful to be away from what we’ve always known. We do not know the penalty of exile until we are in exile».
Concerned about the family members who remained in South Africa, Miriam brought her nine-year-old daughter to New York. Now, more than a political conviction, she feels a responsibility to help those who remained there, and since her exile America becomes a powerful voice against apartheid. While pursuing a successful career in the United States, she no longer hesitated to openly and virulently criticize South Africa’s white government and racial segregation.
A political artist
In the United States, Miriam Makeba records new albums with uneven success; Time magazine refers to her as “the most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years.” It appeals to the white audience for its South African origins and its songs in Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, considered «exotic»; and it pleases the black public who, in the midst of racial segregation, recognize itself in its commitment against apartheid. Of the situation in the United States, she will say later: There was not much difference in the United States; it was a country that abolished slavery, but in its own way experienced apartheid.”
In 1962, Miriam sang at President John F. Kennedy’s birthday party at Madison Square Garden. The following year, she married Hugh Masekela, a South African musician in exile, with whom she was married until 1968. Known beyond South Africa, Miriam travels around the world and adds songs from Africa, Europe, and Latin America to her repertoire. In 1962, she went to Kenya and raised funds for the country’s independence. That same year, she testified about apartheid at the United Nations, calling for economic sanctions and an embargo against South Africa. In retaliation, his music was banned from the country and his citizenship revoked. Briefly stateless, she quickly received Algerian, Guinean, Belgian and Ghanaian passports.
The commitments that earned Miriam the honour of being honored by the government of her country also earned her tributes. Shortly after her testimony, she was the only artist invited – by the Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie – to perform at the inauguration of the organization of African unity.
Civil Rights Movement in the United States
Gradually, Miriam Makeba’s commitment to civil rights, against racial segregation and against apartheid, was strengthened. In the United States, she joined civil rights movements, met a leader of the Black Panther Party, gave a charity concert for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) of Martin Luther King Jr., not to mention her country of origin: it will be highly criticized for SCLC’s investments in South African companies, saying, “Now, my long-time friend is supporting the persecution of my people by his country, and I have to find a new idol.”
In March 1966, Miriam received a Grammy Award for her disc an evening with Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba. Very political, the album seeks to denounce the situation of black South Africans under apartheid and to criticize the government, with sometimes direct references to leaders of apartheid. The album, composed in Swahili, Xhosa and Sotho, was a great success, as was the tour that followed.
In 1969, Miriam married civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, former head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and leader of the Black Panthers, who later became Kwame Ture. The union significantly eroded its popularity in the United States: Miriam is seen as an extremist, the white public denies it, some of its performances are cancelled and the government places it under close surveillance. After a trip to the Bahamas, Miriam was forbidden to stay in the United States and moved to Guinea with her husband.
Life in exile
From Guinea, where she will remain fifteen years, close to President Ahmed Sékou Touré and his wife Andrée, Miriam Makeba continues to compose committed music, directly criticizing the policy of the Government ofUnited, evoking Malcolm X or the hero of the independence of the Belgian Congo Patrice Lumumba.
During this period of decolonization of Africa, Miriam is frequently invited to perform at independence ceremonies, notably in Kenya, Angola, Zambia, Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania), Mozambique. She also travels to Europe and Asia, but more to the United States, and her tours remain very popular. In Liberia, she cannot complete her «Pata Pata» performance because the stadium is so noisy. It was at this time that she won the nickname of «Mama Africa».
In 1976, in the black suburb of Soweto, southwest of Johannesburg, the police repressed in blood demonstrations of students and students, killing between 176 and 700 people. In response, Hugh Masekela wrote the song “Soweto Blues,” which Miriam sang.
Children were flying bullets dying
The mothers screaming and crying
The fathers were working in the cities
The evening news brought out all the publicity”
In 1985, Miriam’s daughter, Bongi, a singer like her mother, died in childbirth. In charge of her two grandchildren, Miriam decides to leave Guinea and settles in Belgium, where she marries in 1981 Bageot Bah, who works for an airline. While pursuing her musical career, notably with the album Sangoma in tribute to her mother, she works on her autobiography «Makeba: My Story» with journalist James Hall; In particular, it criticizes apartheid and the United States. In 1985, Miriam received the title of Commander of Arts and Letters, then of Honorary Citizen in 1990.
Back in South Africa
In 1990, Nelson Mandela, a major figure in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, was released after 27 years in prison. He convinces Miriam Makeba to return to South Africa, which she does thanks to her French passport. In June 1990, the singer returned to her country after 31 years of exile.
In 1992, Miriam starred in Darell Roodt Sarafina’s Franco-British-American-South African film! About the 1976 Soweto riots. She plays the role of Angelina, mother of the main character.
After Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994, Miriam did not stop committing himself. With the President’s wife, Graça Machel-Mandela, she advocates for children with HIV, child soldiers and children with disabilities. She created the Makeba Centre for Girls for Orphans, a project that is particularly close to her heart.
In 2005, Miriam began a farewell tour, but nevertheless continued to perform on stage until his death. In November 2008, she made a heart attack on stage in Italy, after having performed the song «Pata Pata» during a concert in support of the writer Roberto Saviano, threatened by the mafia. Miriam Makeva «Mama Africa» died in hospital at the age of 76. I look at an ant and I see myself: a South African, endowed by nature with a force far greater than my height to be able to face the weight of racism that crushes my mind. I look at a bird and I see myself as a South African, flying over the injustices of apartheid on wings of pride, the pride of a beautiful people.”