Miriam Makeba

Zenzi Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) was a South African singer and a world-renowned symbol of the fight against apartheid.

Pedagogical Unit

4. The Pan-African combat

4.1 Birth of a star in the USA

In November 1959, Miriam Makeba arrived in the United States, having been invited for a series of concerts at the Village Vanguard, the famous New York jazz club. She also appeared on a popular television show, The Steve Allen Show, in Los Angeles. This was the beginning of a swift ascension to stardom, which had little impact on her humility, her pragmatism and her South African conscience. She came to the attention of the Jamaican-American singer Harry Belafonte, who became her mentor and whom she affectionately called “Big Brother”. Thanks to him, she would go on to meet many of her idols: Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Sarah Vaughan.

Following the death of her mother, Miriam Makeba wished to return home to Johannesburg but was refused authorisation by the South African authorities. However, she successfully arranged for her daughter to join her in New York. In 1960, yet another massacre took place in South Africa: the Sharpeville massacre, in which two of her uncles were killed. Her status of stateless and the continued hardening of the Afrikaner regime sharpened her political conscience. In 1963, she gave a speech as part of the Special Committee of the United Nations against apartheid. Her artistic career would ultimately become inseparable from her role as the voice of the anti-apartheid fight.

Miriam Makeba giving a speech at the United Nations in 1963.

4.2 The art of service to political engagement

In 1967, Miriam Makeba arrived in Guinea by invitation of the president, Sékou Touré. There, he expressed his desire to make her honorary citizen. Unable to return to South Africa, she was at least back in the African continent. This was the beginning of a 25-year-long close relationship with Guinea, first in line of non-aligned countries fighting the battle against imperialism and colonialism. From the 1960s, other countries followed in giving her a diplomatic passport (Tanzania, Cuba, Algeria, Nigeria, Sudan etc.) But it was in Guinea that she met the African American activist, soon to be leader of the Black Panther movement, Stokely Carmichael. This love affair would set off a new string of setbacks, starting with a ban on returning to the United States. Stokely Carmichael was considered an undesirable in his home country and was under constant FBI surveillance.

Whilst Miriam Makeba pursued a flourishing career on the African continent, where she was received with great respect as official invitee, President Touré asked her to become one of the Guinean delegates at the United Nations. During the 1970s, she went on a series of tours, travelling across five continents on behalf of the UN, UNESCO and various movements against racism and discrimination. In 1992, she won the Bedford Stuyvesant Community of New York City trophy for ‘Woman of the Century’. She also received Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters and the French Legion of Honour.

Ahmed Sékou Touré in 1962. Dutch National Archives.

Guinea was a French colony until 1958. Its first president, Ahmed Sékou Touré, was an advocate of Guinean independence, and was at the head of the Pan-African movement for some time. Chief of both government and military, he oriented his country towards Marxist socialism, with the help of the USSR and populist China. He refused to instate the French Community (the political association between France and its former colonies), which earned him the ire of General De Gaulle, who ordered the immediate retreat of all French engineers and technicians with all valuable materials. Economic ties were also cut, which put the young country in great difficulty. Sékou Touré however affirmed that he “preferred liberty in poverty than riches in servitude.” In a climate of paranoia, he created a dictatorial regime which proved to be a disaster, economically as well as in terms of human rights.

4.3 Mama Africa, the voice of Africa

At the beginning of the 1980s, Swiss television coined the nickname Mama Africa for Miriam Makeba, which stuck. Ambassador for the African continent, she shone a light on its cultures via the international stage, enriching her repertoire of songs by taking inspiration from the countries that hosted her. She sang in the vernacular of numerous languages. In 1965, the record An Evening with Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, recorded in homage to the Zulu, Sotho and Swahili cultures (and winner of a Grammy for best folk album) was already a sign of this will. After a brief return to the United States with a triumphant concert in Carnegie Hall, Miriam Makeba was deeply affected by the premature death of her daughter Bongi, in 1985.

Her Pan-African militancy was soon halted by the death of her friend, the Burkinabe leader Thomas Sankara, in 1987. Her focus shifted to her music and the anti-apartheid fight. In 1990, Nelson Mandela, just freed after 27 years in detention, convinced her to return to South Africa. Mama Africa finally set foot once again in her native country. In 2001, she was named South Africa’s ‘Goodwill Ambassador’ for Africa by President Thabo Mbeki. In the 2000s, she dedicated her time to her two humanitarian foundations in South Africa, The Zenzile Miriam Makeba Foundation and The Miriam Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for Girls. She died on the 9th November 2008 at the end of a concert in support of Roberto Saviano, the director of the film Gomorrah, who was being hunted by the Neapolitan mafia.

Cover of the studio album An Evening with Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba. RCA, 1969.