Mama Africa played her part in the struggle

Pallo Jordan

Pallo Jordan

Legendary music icon Miriam Makeba's name had become synonymous with the worldwide struggle against apartheid and for freedom in South Africa.

Her music projected the African people's aspirations and hopes for a better world as no other musician had done for more than three decades.

It is with deep sorrow and a sense of loss that we have learnt of the death of this internationally renowned singer at the age of 76 in Italy on Monday morning.

In the language of her forefathers, there is an expression: "The graves of the really brave are by the roadside."

Like the courageous soul she was, Miriam Zenzile Makeba ended her life on the road, performing in the south of Italy in support of an Italian journalist who has done a damning exposé of the Mafia.

We offer our heartfelt condolences to her grandchildren, the rest of her family, her friends and to her fans throughout the world.

At the time of her death, Sis Zenzi was doing what she lived for. She was on a tour of Italy, acting as a cultural ambassador by taking African music to all the quarters of the globe.

Makeba did not allow the glitter and glamour of the limelight in which she spent a great part of her time all over the world to blind her to her past and the problems of her home continent. She kept her eyes on the prize: creating one human family under one heaven.

Although she was forced to leave her country in 1960, this neither crushed her resilience nor her commitment to the liberation of her people.

Makeba, known variously as " daai Nutbrown baby" and other nicknames in her youth, was born in 1932 near Pretoria. From her mother, who was a traditional healer from Swaziland, she learnt many of her traditional African songs and chants.

By the time she was a teenager, her talent had won her a place in the famous Manhattan Brothers. She was also a key figure in the Skylarks, a women's quartet.

When the famous musical King Kong was staged, she won the role of the female lead, playing opposite Nathan Mdledle. At the age of 26, she appeared in an anti-apartheid film titled Come Back Africa, shot inside South Africa by American filmmaker Lionel Rogosin, highlighting the degrading conditions under which her people were forced to live. Her appearance in that film earned her an invitation to the Venice Film Festival in 1960.

Because the film so damaged the international reputation of the apartheid government, they seized her passport, compelling her to remain in exile for the next 30 years.

The vicious reaction of the racists, however, threw the gates of the international community open to her. In London, she met Harry Belafonte, who assisted her to move to the US where he actively helped in launching her international musical career.

The release of her first album, Miriam Makeba, in 1961 was the commencement of a brilliant future as the musical ambassador of the African continent. Her second album, where she employed the "wall of sound" techniques developed by rock musicians in the US, saw her expand her repertoire to include Swahili, Indonesian, West Indian and Brazilian songs.

Collaborating with other South African musicians and students who began arriving in the US after 1962, Makeba was instrumental in establishing scholarships for deserving black South Africans, and employed her music as much to entertain as to conscientise the US public to the plight of the oppressed in South Africa.

In 1965 she was invited to testify about the situation in South Africa before the United Nations. Her articulate presentation won the admiration of virtually every African ambassador, and she was variously honoured with the citizenship of a number of newly independent countries.

A collaborative album arranged by Jonas Gwangwa, An Evening with Belafonte and Makeba, earned her a Grammy in 1966, the first African performer to win one.

Ever conscious of her African heritage, Makeba played a pivotal role in shaping the character of African-American cultural identity through her Afro hairstyle and the costumes she used on stage. This significant cultural contribution was heightened when she married the radical activist, Kwame Toure, formerly known as Stokely Carmichael.

As in her mother country, Makeba was subjected to political harassment and career-threatening victimization for fusing her musical talent with political activism. Although she was not banned, she was evidently blacklisted by promoters in the US, and some of her concerts and recording contracts were cancelled.

In fact, she was embraced by the world for her unflinching stance. She moved back to the African continent, settling in Guinea, which she used as her home-base, travelling to Europe, Latin America, other parts of the continent and the Caribbean - espousing the African dream for a better world through her song.

In recognition of her efforts, in 1986 she was presented with the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize and the Unesco Grand Prix du Conseil International de la Musique awards.

Perhaps more than any other African singer, Makeba was able to use her art as a weapon of the struggle. Her international stature contributed immensely to the worldwide campaign for sanctions and the isolation of the apartheid regime.

On the African continent, Mama Africa, as she was widely known, distinguished herself as a patriot, advocating the just cause of the peoples of Southern Africa in the fight against colonialism and apartheid.

Her songs A Lutta Continua and Gauteng spoke of her commitment to the liberation struggle and the cause of the African workers exploited in the gold mines of South Africa.

Makeba returned to SA in December 1990. Though she often said she would, she never left the stage and stayed on the road as a performer till the end.

She published two biographies - in 1988 and 2004. She leaves behind a discography in excess of 30 albums that extend from her days with The Skylarks to her last album, Reflections, recorded in South Africa in 2000.

The passing of this outstanding African performer is a great loss to South African music and the cultural life of our country.

Makeba was, essentially, an African creative who won a place in the global cultural village thanks to her talent and magnificent voice.

Hamba Kahle Sis' Zenzi!

lDr Pallo Jordan is the Minister of Arts and Culture