Miriam Makeba, “Mama Africa,” dies at anti-Mafia concert in Italy

Miriam Makeba, the South African singer who became a world symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle, died Nov. 10 after performing at an anti-Mafia concert in southern Italy. The 76-year-old singer died after being brought to the hospital at Castelvolturno at the end of a concert in support of Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist threatened with death by the Naples crime machine following of his exposure of the mob in his bestselling book.

Born in Johannesburg in 1932 to a Xhosa father and Swazi mother, Makeba—called “Mama Afrika” and the “Empress of African Song”—first came to international prominence when she starred in the anti-apartheid documentary Come Back, Africa in 1959. When she tried to return to South Africa for the funeral of her mother the following year, her passport was confiscated and she was banned from the country. In 1963, she appeared before the UN Special Committee on Apartheid to call for an international boycott of South Africa—after which her songs were banned in her homeland.

The singer lived in exile for over thirty years in the US, France, West Africa and Belgium. After her 1968 engagement to American black militant Stokely Carmichael in 1968, US record labels dropped her and her performance bookings were cancelled. She returned to South Africa in 1990, when the process of dismantling apartheid began. “I just told the world the truth, and if the truth then becomes political, I can’t do anything about that,” she said in 2000.

Makeba, who sang with Harry Belafonte in the 1960s and with Paul Simon in the 1980s, became the first Black African woman to receive a Grammy, sharing it with Belafonte. Her hit songs included “Pata Pata” (Xhosa for “touch, touch”), “The Click Song” (“Qongqothwane” in Xhosa), and “Malaika.”

Makeba’s final concert went forward despite reports of a threat from the Naples mob to the security of those performing and attending. La Repubblica said that “not even the arrogance of the Camorra” had stopped the event. The concert was staged on a square where Domenico Noviello, a local anti-Mafia businessman, was gunned down last May. Castelvolturno was also the scene of a Camorra massacre in September, when six immigrants of African origin were shot dead.

South Africa’s Culture Ministry issued a statement hailing Makeba as an international icon. “It’s a monumental loss not only to South African society in general but for humanity,” the statement said. (BBC News, Nov. 11; The Guardian, AP, Nov. 10)

See our last posts on South Africa and Italy.