It was befitting that she was called Mama Africa. Her work, and her voice were of unparalleled magnitude in fighting the brutality of apartheid. Miriam Makeba was the voice of South Africa. She showed the power of music in fighting injustice. She clung to a lifelong claim, one that said she was not a political singer. But her tenacity for activism got her all the name Mama Africa.
Miriam Makeba was a South African singer, actor, United Nations goodwill ambassador, and civil rights activist. She was born on March 4, 1932, and she was welcomed into a deeply fragmented society, one that offered opportunities on the basis of a person's skin colour. The white-government in South Africa was infamous for denying blacks the most basic form of rights including the right to own land and to vote. She was born into a world that offered few opportunities for blacks.
South Africa's governance was centred on the issue of white supremacy, and in in 1948 under Prime Minister Daniel Malan, an official law was passed to "legitimize" white supremacy, despite the fact that the whites were only a handful as compared to the blacks who constituted the majority of the population, with a ratio of four-to-one. Makeba's father opted to live in the townships, choosing Prospect Township, one of the most segregated shanty townships in Johannesburg, South Africa. Makeba's mother worked as a domestic worker for a white household, and she augmented her income by selling home-brewed beer. Eventually, she was charged for the offense and spent six months in jail. Makeba, then just 18 days old, went with her.
Makeba's exceptional vocal talents were easily recognized when she was in the school choir at Kilnerton Training Institute, a Methodist school for African children in the South African administrative capital of Pretoria. At the age of 13, Makeba gave her first solo performance before King George VI of England during his visit to South Africa. From a young age, Makeba had mastered traditional songs in the Xhosa and Zulu dialects. Apart from this traditional music, she also listened to American jazz recordings, particularly those of Ella Fitzgerald. "Anyone who sings," Makeba once said, as quoted by Louise Crane in Ms. Africa: Profiles of Modern African Women, "makes music, as long as it's good to my ear."
Her teenage hood was not rosy, something that was synonymous with many young South Africans at that point. An early marriage at the age of 17 resulted in her having a baby. Her husband died when she was 19, and she had the burden of supporting the child on her own. She continued to work as a domestic and sang at weddings, funerals, and other events in her spare time. These amateur showings led to contact with a professional group of eleven men called the Black Manhattan Brothers, who asked Makeba to join as their female vocalist in 1954. She remained with the ensemble until 1957, during which time Makeba performed throughout South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and the Belgian Congo (now Zaire), and in 1956 recorded her signature song, "Pata Pata," which would eventually become a major American hit in 1967.
Makeba further enhanced her reputation playing the female lead of Joyce, the owner of an illegal African drinking place called a "shebeen," in the jazz opera King Kong. Based on the tragic account of an African prize fighter jailed for a crime of passion, the production, which premiered on February 2, 1959, toured South Africa for eight months with surprising success, despite the humiliating restrictions levied because of apartheid.
She quickly gained international fame and in 1957 she applied for a legal passport to travel abroad. She toured Venice, and established her name firmly in the United States through many tours and concerts. When she attempted to return to South Africa in 1960 for her mother's funeral, she learnt that the government had banned her from returning to the country.
After South Africa revoked Makeba's citizenship, she was initially reluctant to speak too much about her political views, fearing the safety of family members who remained near Johannesburg. But increasingly, she became more vocal. During an exile spanning over three decades, Makeba was issued passports from nine different countries and often referred to herself a "citizen of the world." On two occasions, in 1964 and 1975, she addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations on the horrors of apartheid and in 1968 won the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize.
Her speech at the United Nations General Assembly made her the first musician to ever address such an audience in 1963. She pleaded with world leaders to pressure the South African government to do away with apartheid.
“I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place? Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your own country because the color of your skin is different from that of the rulers, and if you were punished for even asking for equality. I appeal to you, and to all the countries of the world to do everything you can to stop the coming tragedy. I appeal to you to save the lives of our leaders, to empty the prisons of all those who should never have been there.”
Her speech was a very powerful, and made the South African government disdain her very much. Miriam Makeba always said she was happiest when she was singing. Makeba didn’t have the career of a pop singer, thinking about hits and trends and markets. She followed conscience and history instead, becoming a symbol of integrity and pan-Africanism.