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Fifteen years after her untimely death, Sipho Mantula remembers the great Miriam Makeba

On ‘Iphi Ndlela’, she sang: ‘Stay well, my people. I am leaving. I am going to the land of the white man. I ask you to be with me to show me the way. We will meet and see one another upon my return.’ Miriam Makeba never did return.

This testament would remember sacred moments that occurred in the life and times of Mama Africa, Dr Zenzile Miriam Makeba, as we celebrate and commemorate her life, fifteen years after her untimely transition at the Italian town of Caserta on the 9th of November 2008.

She remembers the day in 1960 when she found out that she could not come home again. She was in New York, a few days after she heard about the death of her mother in South Africa. She went to the South African government office and told them that she wanted to come home to visit her mother’s grave.

“The man at the desk takes my passport. He does not speak to me. He takes a rubber stamp and slams it down in my passport. Then he walks away. I pick up my passport. It is stamped INVALID. My breath catches in my throat… They have done it. They have exiled me. I am not allowed to go home, not now, and not ever. My family. My home. Everything that has gone into the making of myself, gone!”

Gogo Mama Africa, Dr Zenzile Miriam Makeba, used her voice to entertain, but also to give a voice to millions of oppressed fellow South Africans who suffered because of apartheid. The price she had to pay for her actions was high, namely her South African citizenship. Makeba writes about this bitter memory in one of her first autobiography texts about her life, written in her own words, ‘Makeba: My Story’ by James Hall published in 1988.

In the book, Makeba writes about her early life in South Africa, and how she became a singer. She writes about leaving South Africa and the pain of living in exile, far away from home. It is a moving story—a story that begins on the day of Makeba’s birth, 91 years ago.

The early years in life

Miriam Makeba was born on 4 March 1932 in Johannesburg. She was the daughter of Christina and Caswell Makeba. She was Christina’s fifth child. For Caswell, her mother’s second husband, she was his first and only child.

Christina helped her husband feed the family by brewing and selling umqombothi. When Miriam was just 18 days old, the police raided the family home and found the umqombothi. The family could not pay the eighteen pound fine and so mother and baby spent six months in jail.

After his wife and daughter came out of jail, Caswell Makeba took his family to live in Nelspruit in the then Eastern Transvaal. Miriam has happy memories of this time. She remembers living in a house with her pets and a garden full of beautiful flowers.

Makeba’s father died when she was five years old. Her mother took her to live with her grandmother in Pretoria. In Pretoria there were many children for Miriam to play with. She was the youngest of twenty-one grandchildren who lived with the grandmother.

It was at this time that Miriam Makeba found that she loved to sing. She sang in the Sunday school choir, and the choir at school. After school, she liked to sit with her brother Joseph and his friends and listen to the records of singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday. Afterwards she would sing for Joseph and his friends. They were her first fans.

Miriam travels to Jozi

At the age of 16, Makeba left school and got a job as a domestic worker in Johannesburg. She remembers how the “madam” was jealous because the “master” was kind to her. One day, the “madam” put the “master’s” watch under Miriam’s pillow and then called the police. Miriam quickly left her first job, lucky not go to jail.

A year later, Makeba fell pregnant by her childhood sweetheart, a chap by the name of Gooli. She married Gooli and went to live with his family in Marabastad. Miriam gave birth to a daughter who she named Bongi. Makeba was never able to have children again.

It was not a happy time for the young Makeba. Her mother-in-law made her work hard and treated her badly. Her husband was not much better. He beat her. In the end, she left him when she found him in bed with another woman. It was not just any woman—it was her sister Mitzpah.

Makeba forgave her sister, but she could not forgive her husband. She took her child and went to live with her aunt in Johannesburg. Her aunt had a son by the name of Zweli, who liked to dress in fancy American clothes. When Zweli was not polishing his Florsheim shoes, he played in a band.

The band, called the Cuban Brothers, needed a singer. Zweli, knowing that his cousin Miriam had a beautiful voice, asked her if she wanted to join the group. “Zweli didn’t have to ask me twice,” writes Makeba. “When I was married, I never wanted to sing. I was too sad. But now I wanted to sing my lungs out and forget all my troubles.”

And so Makeba, who was now 20 years old and only five foot three inches tall, joined the Cuban Brothers. She sang with them at the Donaldson Community Centre in Orlando East. One day, a singer by the name of Nathan Mdledhle went to the Donaldson Centre to listen to the Cuban Brothers. Mdledhljie, who was the leader of a large group called the Manhattan Brothers, went up to Makeba after the show. “I really enjoyed your show, Miss Makeba,” he said. “You have a lovely voice. It is the voice of a nightingale.” But that is not all Nathan Mdledhle said to Makeba. He asked her to join the Manhattan Brothers. How could she refuse?

Five nights a week

Makeba sang five nights a week with the Manhattan Brothers and was paid a pound for each concert. The band played in townships around the country. At each concert, Makeba sang for four hours, from eight in the evening until midnight. It was challenging work.

And it was dangerous work. Makeba remembers the gangsters who came to the concerts. They did not only put their feet on the tables, they put their guns there as well. One time, when she sang at a club in Alexandra Township, she sang a song called ‘Savuka’. When she finished, the gangsters made her sing it again and again. She sang ‘Savuka’ twenty times that night.

But the gangsters were not the only problem for the Manhattan Brothers. The police officers gave them a tough time too. One night, while the band was travelling from Pretoria to Johannesburg, two young police officers stopped them. “You say you are a singing group,” said the one police officer. “Okay, then, let’s hear you sing.” And so, the Manhattan Brothers, one of the top groups in the country, had to stand on the side of the road and sing for the two young police officers.

Another night, after the group played at a concert, a “bearded young man with a kind, round face” told Makeba that he enjoyed her singing. She later found out that his name was Nelson Mandela.

In 1956, Makeba, now 24 years old, got a job singing in a show called, ‘African Jazz and Variety’. The great Dorothy Masuku was in the show, as well as the singer, Sonny Pillay. One day a man from overseas came to the show and asked Miriam to sing in a film he was making. The film was called, ‘Come Back, Africa’.

Soon after Makeba finished her work for the film, she got a part in a show called, ‘King Kong’—the true story of the boxer, Ezekiel Dhlamini. After killing his girlfriend, Dhlamini was sent to jail where he somehow drowned in a pool of water. In the show, Nathan Mdledlhe, the leader of the Manhattan Brothers, played Dhlamini and Makeba was his girlfriend, Joyce.

Makeba was then invited to go to France for the opening of ‘Come Back, Africa’. After waiting a long time, Makeba got a passport. On a cold winter’s day in August 1959, Makeba flew out of South Africa. She was 27 years old.

Makeba in France and then New York

After going to France, Makeba went to London where she sang in a television show. She also met her old friend, Sonny Pillay, who was now living in London. Sonny and Miriam quickly decided to get married, but the marriage did not last. After three months it was over.

In London, Makeba met somebody else, the American singer and actor Harry Belafonte. She had sung some of his songs when she was still with the Cuban Brothers. When Makeba told Belafonte that she was on her way to America, he told her he would be waiting for her.

In November, Makeba arrived in New York. A few days later, she sang on television in front of sixty million people. Then she got a job singing in a nightclub. On her opening night, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and Nina Simone came to listen to Makeba sing songs like ‘Jikele Maweni’, ‘Back on the Moon’, and ‘Nqonqothwane’.

Everybody loved her singing. Miriam Makeba became a star overnight. There was now only one thing for her to do—she sent for her daughter, Bongi.

When Makeba found out that she could not come back to South Africa, she began to speak out against apartheid. She now had nothing to lose. Before every concert, Harry Belafonte would talk about the black people’s struggle in America and Makeba would talk about the struggle of her people back home.

One day, Makeba came back to her New York flat and found an old friend waiting for her. His name was Hugh Masekela. Makeba writes: “I first got to know Hughie when he was 14 years old, but to me he will always look like a little boy, with his cute fat cheeks and big round eyes. Ever since South Africa, I have dated Masekela off and on. Sometimes we are like lovers, and sometimes we are like brother and sister.”

One night, at a concert in New York, Makeba said to the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, I am very pleased to present to you my new husband, Hugh Masekela.” But, as some people will tell you, it is not an innovative idea for old friends to marry. Makeba and Masekela were divorced two years later.

African royalty

Makeba not only sang in concerts all over America. She travelled everywhere, giving concerts and talking about apartheid in many different countries. But of all the places in the world, Makeba loved coming to Africa most of all.

She writes: “Each time I go back to Africa, it is like being reborn. But it is bittersweet, because I cannot really go home—to the place of my birth and my family.”

Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya was the first leader to invite Makeba to sing in Africa. After Kenya, she went to Tanzania where she met President Julius Nyerere. An hour after he met her, Nyerere gave her a Tanzanian passport.

In later years, Makeba met many more African leaders and was given many more passports. But of all the leaders, she was closest to President Sekou Toure of Guinea. He told her that if she ever wanted, she was welcome to come and live in his country.

While on a visit to Guinea, Makeba met her next husband. His name was Stokely Carmichael, a well-known black American leader. Makeba and Carmichael lived a happy life together. Their marriage lasted for ten years.

The painful times

But in her book, Makeba does not only write about meeting famous people and falling in love. She also writes about the painful times in her life, like the time she almost died from cancer. Makeba beat the cancer and lived to suffer another terrible time in her life. A few years ago, her daughter Bongi died after giving birth to her third child. Ever since Bongi joined her mother in America, she was never happy. Makeba often blamed herself for her daughter’s problems. Makeba asks herself the same question repeatedly: “If she had not left South Africa, would her daughter still be alive today?”

“I feel guilty,” she writes. “I wonder how many of Bongi’s problems were my fault.”

Makeba also suffered for marrying Stokely Carmichael. After she married him, her star stopped shining in America. Her husband’s politics upset a lot of people in America—and Makeba paid the price. Many of her concerts were cancelled and record companies began to turn their back on her. When this happened, Makeba accepted President Sekou Toure’s offer. She went to live in Guinea.

Deeply loved—she is one of us

Overall, Miriam Makeba tells an honest and moving story in her book. There is just one gap in the story. She only gives one line to Paul Simon, “the American pop star who brings me back to his country after so many years”.

One gets the feeling that Makeba did not want to talk about the Paul Simon concerts. It seems that some people were angry with her for singing in these concerts—and that Makeba did not want to upset them any further.

It is not nice to see our people divided like this. If there is a problem, or if the rules for our musicians and artists are not clear, we hope it can be worked out. Miriam Makeba is deeply loved in the townships of South Africa. She is one of us—and everything must be done to keep it that way!

Tributes from Vusi Mahlasela and Ringo Mandlingozi

A South African cultural activist and musician Mkhulu Vusi Mahlasela reminds us that “we must continue commemorating and paying homage to the iconic Mama Miriam Makeba as she remains an extraordinary figure whose legacy deserves greater recognition and celebration” and a prominent South African musician and member of Parliament (Economic Freedom Fighters), Ringo Madlingozi, echoed that “Mama Miriam Makeba’s speeches at the United Nations in 1963 and 1964 and her music helps us to fight against apartheid and she will live forever in our minds”.

Sipho Mantula is a human and people’s rights defender in Africa.

By Editor