Courageous to the end

Pallo Jordan

Pallo Jordan

Legendary music icon Miriam Makeba's name has 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.

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

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

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.

She 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 was born in 1932. 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.

When the famous musical King Kong was staged, she won the role of the female lead. She appeared in an anti-apartheid film, Come Back Africa, shot in South Africa, highlighting the degrading conditions under which her people were forced to live. Her appearance in the 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 beginning of a brilliant future as the musical ambassador of Africa.

Her second album 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, she was instrumental in establishing scholarships for deserving black South Africans, and employed her music as much to entertain as to conscientise Americans to the plight of South Africans.

In 1965 she was invited to testify about the situation in South Africa before the UN.

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

She was subjected to political harassment and career-threatening victimisation for fusing her musical talent with political activism.

Makeba was blacklisted by promoters in the US. Some of her concerts and recording contracts were cancelled, but she was embraced by the world for her unflinching stance.

She moved back to Africa, settling in Guinea with Carmichael.

In 1986 Makeba 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, she used her art as a weapon of the struggle.

Her international stature contributed immensely to the worldwide campaign for sanctions against apartheid.

In Africa, she distinguished herself as a patriot, advocating the just cause of the people of Southern Africa in the fight against colonialism and apartheid.

Makeba came home in 1990.

She published biographies in 1988 and 2004. She leaves behind a discography in excess of 30 albums.

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

l Pallo Jordan is South Africa's Minister of Arts and Culture.