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Honouring Miriam Makeba

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Picture: Miriam Makeba official FaceBook page – Miriam Makeba sang of the injustices and ills in South Africa and beyond, using her voice to expose the plight of Africans, the plague of racism and oppression, and the mercilessness of the incarceration of political leaders, the writer says.

By Kim Heller

The recently departed legendary singer, Harry Belafonte, once said “Each and every one of you has the power, the will and the capacity to make a difference in the world in which you live.” Belafonte spoke of how his art provided a platform for his activism.

The great Nina Simone shared a similar perspective “You can’t help it,” Simone proclaimed, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

Miriam Makeba did just that, as she sang of the injustices and ills in South Africa and beyond, using her voice to expose the plight of Africans, the plague of racism and oppression, and the mercilessness of the incarceration of political leaders.

“People say I sing about politics” Makeba once remarked “But what I sing is not politics. It is the truth.” It was Belafonte who said that artists are the gatekeepers of truth. “We are civilisation’s anchor” he said, “the compass for humanity’s conscience.” There was a strong conscience and consciousness in the words of Makeba, in all her chords, whether this was song or speech.

University of Cape Town’s Nomfundo Xaluva has wrote of Miriam Makeba and “her art of activism”. In 2022, she wrote, “In remembering Makeba, we must guard against confining her activism to the anti-apartheid speeches she delivered at the United Nations in 1963 and 1976. Her activism was far more nuanced than that. It was interwoven in her music, her delivery of melodies, lyrics, and artistic sentiment” Xaluva says its exquisitely “Her artistry was a lantern that burnt vigorously through one of the darkest eras in history.”

Picture: Thobile Mathonsi / Taken April 23, 2023 – Musician Abigail Kubeka perform during the Inaugural Memorial Lecture of the late Dr Miriam Makeba held at Unisa.

Miriam Makeba was to perform with both Nina Simone and Harry Belafonte in her life. Makeba and Belafonte collaborated on a politically inspired and spiced joint album, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, which was awarded a grammy in 1965.

The little girl, born in the Prospect township in Johannesburg in 1932, was to rise up and enjoy international fame becoming not only one of the most popular and influential African performers on the world stage, but a strong and credible voice of issues of African liberation and civil rights. She took the podium at the United Nations to appeal to the world’s humanity to help end apartheid.

The struggle for African liberation is not over. The Makeba song, Aluta Continua, written decades ago speaks to the unrequited liberation of the African Continent, the spark of revolutionary hope of Frelimo’s Samora Machel in Mozambique, and the fight for freedom across Africa. The song pays homage to those who have given their lives to the struggle for African liberation.

It is a song of hope for a tomorrow where the Continent will be free. Today the song is a haunting reminder of a historical struggle that has yet to yield true freedom.

In her keynote address at the Miriam Makeba Inaugural Memorial Lecture, hosted by the Thabo MBEKI African School of Public and International Affairs, in collaboration with the Miriam Makeba Foundation, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma said, “Makeba’s life teaches us that all history is a current event. The present is currently giving birth to the past, while simultaneously whispering to inform the future. Much of what Mam Makeba cautioned us about continues to plague our continent to this day.”

Picture: Thobile Mathonsi/Taken April 23, 2023 – Minister in the presidency for women, youth and persons with disabilities, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma dances during the Inaugural Memorial Lecture of the late Dr Miriam Makeba held at Unisa.

The Grammy-nominated jazz vocalist Somi Kakoma, described Makeba was “one of the greatest voices of the 20th century.” Kakoma explains, “She set out to be a singer and ended up being this sight of liberation and inspiration for so many people. That is why people often refer her to as Mama Africa because she was really in many ways an icon at the time of the African Independence movement, the Civil Rights movement and became a voice for anti-apartheid.”

She was a strong woman, Xaluva writes “Makeba was not just the wife of musician Masekela or Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael. She was not Belafonte’s “discovery from South Africa”. She arrived in America a consummate professional fit for purpose. The role of these male figures in Makeba’s life may have been meaningful but it is also grossly overstated. Makeba’s legacy is strong enough to stand on its own two feet. Her name needs no co-anchor. She fought more with her “artivism” than many a man did with their armed weaponry.”

Masekela appeared to have shared this sentiment, “There’s nobody in Africa who made the world more aware of what was happening in South Africa than Miriam Makeba. This was because of the way in which she described the songs … unwittingly she educated African American artists.”

In her beautiful tribute, at the recently held inaugural Miriam Makeba memorial lecture, Dlamini Zuma spoke of her rise to “an iconic figure in the journey of African people and our struggles for a more just and humane society”. Dlamini Zuma spoke of how Makeba’s voice and warmth travelled and reached the length and breadths of the world and left an indelible mark.

Sadly, for Makeba, she was silenced not only in South African but eventually in America too. The America that once embraced her rejected her when she married black panther leader, Stokely Carmichael. This ugly erasure of Makeba, which exposed the country’s deep hypocrisy and its lip service to Black civil rights, caused Makeba both professional and personal pain.

But Makeba persevered as she always did to rise up and she did. Makeba once said: “There were three things I was born with in this world, and there are three things I will have until the day I die – hope determination and song.”

Miriam Makeba died in 2008, at the age of seventy-six, after performing at a concert in Italy, in support of author Roberto Saviano. Until the very end, Makeba kept true to who she was, “I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots.”

Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.