Saturday, November 15, 2008

Enkosi Mama Afrika!

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Miriam Makeba at the 2006 Cape Town Jazz Festival.


Written by Sakina Grimwood

Music played an important role in South Africa's liberation struggle and the voice of Zenzi Miriam Makeba was particularly influential in raising international awareness of the plight of the majority of this country. Mama Afrika herself was outspoken about the evils of the apartheid government, addressing the United Nations General Assembly on several occasions.

Makeba spent 31 years in exile from South Africa, returning in 1990. Her age did not deter her from performing in the years since, and in a tribute to her memory, Nelson Mandela was quoted as saying "[i]t was fitting that her last moments were spent on a stage, enriching the hearts and lives of others - and again in support of a good cause".

Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the American Black Panthers to whom she was married for a decade, described discovering that "this attractive and apparently so gentle and mature woman was a very political creature, in fact an uncompromising militant where her people's freedom was concerned." In many ways, Makeba embodied the Black Consciousness woman who was proud of her heritage. Before American and European audiences she sang in indigenous African languages with her hair untouched by straighteners or weaves and without make-up – a powerful image and obviously very threatening to the old regime. It is little surprise that her South African passport was revoked.

After speaking before the Decolonisation Committee of the UN in 1963, Makeba was banned from returning to this country. In 1964 she also spoke before the UN Committee on Apartheid. When her mother died in 1963, Makeba was not allowed to re-enter to pay her respects. She could do so only after returning nearly three decades later.

A citizen of the world, Makeba performed at many events marking the end of a struggle and the beginning of liberation in countries across Africa. She sang in Nairobi at Kenyan independence, in Luanda, at Angolan independence, at the inauguration of the Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa and also for Samora Machel in Mozambique. In her time away from her homeland, to which she yearned to return, she became an honourary citizen of several countries.

Makeba's life was a tapestry of struggle and success. Her role in contributing to the awareness of the oppressive regime in our country must be remembered. Her music, contribution and achievements should be celebrated.

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Photo by Mark Oppenheimer

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