Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

Breaking through lifelong barriers both personal and public, Miriam Makeba lived a courageous life unafraid of standing up for what was right. She did so with a song in her heart for all the world to hear. Here is the story of the amazing “Mama Africa.”

How strong is the power of song? Grammy award winning performer Miriam Makeba sang her song for decades, rallying against apartheid and in support of making a better life for Africans and others oppressed by unjust difficulties. Her message was sung in Creole, Zulu, French and numerous other languages to reach as many ears and minds as she could with her entreaties. Her popularity helped propel her to the forefront as a leading international figure in the fight against apartheid, and Makeba finally witnessed the reward of her efforts during her lifetime, with the end of South African apartheid. Even then, she continued with her work until her dying day.

Makeba rose to prominence armed with the personal firsthand knowledge of what it felt like to be poor, hungry, abused and oppressed. While such traumas can often turn people hard and bitter, these very experiences were what moved Makeba to positive action and catapulted her to international fame as an icon of justice.

Makeba’s Early Life

Born in Johannesburg in 1932, Zenzile Miriam Makeba began a life filled with great challenges. Yet, as the meaning of her name “Zenzile” (One who can overcome life’s obstacles, and make a way for herself) would foreshadow, Makeba grew to be one who could overcome life’s obstacles and make a path for herself.

Miriam Makeba

Miriam Makeba. Photo: Gallo Images / Alamy

The difficulties started early. She essentially began her life behind bars, at the side of her mother who had been imprisoned for the offence of selling homemade beer. At the tender age of six, Makeba’s father died. Neither of these daunting experiences would quiet the emerging song within Makeba’s spirit. With her father’s passing, Makeba began work as a housemaid, singing through her tasks. She sang in her Pretoria primary school, where her musical abilities were lauded. It was already evident that music lifted her spirits and that, through her music, she could lift the spirits of others.

As time passed, Makeba sang at weddings and other small venues. In her late teens, she gave birth to a daughter; soon thereafter, Makeba was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her then-husband left her, but Makeba’s mother used her own healing techniques to cure the young singer. Nothing could stop her song, and she began climbing the professional ranks in the 1950s.

Mama Africa

She joined The Manhattan Brothers singing group, and later became part of The Skylarks, an all-female group. As her fledgling career was beginning, some venues embraced her, while others banned her performances outright. However, in 1959, she rocketed to international stardom, thanks to songs she sang in the documentary, “Come Back Africa.” She was propelled into performances in jazz clubs and on television. Renowned singer Harry Belefonte guided her meteoric rise, and soon, Makeba was hobnobbing with the likes of Bing Crosby, Marlin Brando, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy. Makeba’s star quickly rose.

Miriam Makeba record

Miriam Makeba record. Photo: EyeBrowz / Alamy

All was not glitter. In 1960, she suffered exile from South Africa for her outspoken views and was forced to leave the home she so dearly fought for. In her adult life, she had five marriages, and rode a roller coaster between wealth and poverty.

In 1962, she began addressing the UN on apartheid issues (South Africa then banned her work). She came to be affectionately known as Mama Africa as she continued her anti-apartheid message, and also became involved with civil rights and black power issues. She eventually became a UN delegate for Guinea.

Life’s ups and downs continued for Mama Africa. Her daughter died in 1985; in 1986, Makeba won the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize.

Makeba was appointed a UN Goodwill Ambassador in 1999; a title she held until her passing. As Ambassador, Makeba participated in numerous efforts to lift up and improve life for women and oppressed groups, with a strong focus on helping to end hunger. She threw her energies into doing everything she could to fight gross injustice, violence against and within African populations, and disease that so devastated the poor. She would sing in fundraising concerts to support food projects in South Africa and elsewhere.

Makeba’s Finale

In 2005, despite battling osteoarthritis, Makeba began a multiple-year farewell tour that would sadly prove to be appropriately named. In November, 2008, Makeba was in her element, on the stage in Italy, performing in a concert to support efforts against an organized crime syndicate. She had just finished singing her famous signature song, “Pata Pata,” when Makeba suffered a heart attack. Before the surprised audience, this graceful bastion of courage and strength collapsed on the stage, literally fighting for the causes she believed in; right up until she could give no more.

Photo from the film "Come Back Africa", 1959 - USA; Director: Lionel Rogosin; Songs: Miriam Makeba.

Photo from the film “Come Back Africa”, 1959 – USA; Director: Lionel Rogosin; Songs: Miriam Makeba.
Photo: Photos 12 / Alamy

Eight years before her death, Makeba was quoted as saying, “I’ve always been singing, and I will die singing.” March 4, 2013, would have been Makeba’s 81st birthday. Generations who remember her and those yet to discover her have in Makeba an inspiration to cherish.