Rabat, Morocco, 5-9 December 2011   

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Home page » Public Lectures and Scientific Activities » Statutory Public Lectures » Miriam Makeba Public Lecture

Miriam Makeba Public Lecture

Born on 4 March 1932 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Miriam Makeba’s real first name was “ Zenzi ” which is a shorter name for “ Uzenzile ”, meaning “You can only be mad at yourself”. She lost her father at the age of 5 and lived a very difficult childhood. She had to drop out of high-school and work in order to help her mother. As a child, she started singing with her school choir and won a prize at a music contest organized by a missionary school. She was then 13 years old. She took on the stage name of Miriam after joining the Manhattan Brothers, a band led by Nathan Mdledle who discovered her. She remained with the band from 1954 to 1957, then joined a female group known as the “ Skylarks ”. In 1956, she wrote the song Pata Pata which was a great success and in 1959, she was called in by a Broadway producer to play the key role in “King Kong ”, which turned out to be a very successful musical. However, the great turning point in her career occurred when the American film maker Lionel Rogosin proposed to her to make a documentary on black people’s situation in South Africa. The film titled “ Come back Africa ” was presented at the Venice Film Festival in 1959 and allowed her to develop her career in the United States.

Maximizing on that formidable opportunity and the awareness she triggered, Miriam Makeba steadfastly committed herself to the fight against Apartheid. She decided in 1960 to return to South Africa for her mother’s funerals, but the Apartheid regime denied her entry, stripped her from her citizenship and prohibited the sale and broadcast of her music. This was the start of a thirty year exile during which she never stopped making anti-apartheid speeches and calling for a boycott against the South African regime. She said, talking to the UN Special Committee against Apartheid, that “ The United Nations should use its influence to free the thousands of blacks kept right now in South Africa’s prisons and concentration camps ”.

Thanks to her fame, she was the guest of many African head of states. She sang during the inauguration of the Organization of African Unity in 1963 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and also in independence celebrations, hence her nickname “ Mama Africa ”. In the United States, she got in trouble when she married Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Black Panthers. In fact, she was compelled to go to Guinea for another exile. Her commitment to the fight against Apartheid was celebrated through her speeches at the United Nations, her prize as “ Woman of the Year ” given by the Bedford Styversant Comunity of New York, her honorable distinction by France as Commandeur des Arts et Lettres, her Dag Hammarskjöld prize, her Grand Prix from the International Council of UNESCO, her twelve Honorary Doctorates and her rewards of all kinds.

Miriam Makeba published in 1987 her autobiography titled “Makeba : My Story ”. When the Apartheid regime finally collapsed in 1990, Nelson Mandela persuaded her to come home. She carried on her multifaceted career, and in 1992, she played the role of mother Angelina along with Whoopi Goldberg in the movie “ Sarafina ” which dealt with the Soweto upheavals of 1976. Thabo Mbeki appointed her South Africa’s good will ambassador in 2001, a sign of gratefulness for her contribution to the fight against Apartheid. She announced in 2005 that she was putting an end to her career. This, however, did not keep her from defending the causes she believed in. She passed away on 9 November 2008 in Napoli, Italy at the age of 76 after she fell sick at the end of a concert in support of Roberto Saviano, the author of “ Gomorra ” threatened by the Napoli Mafia.

Miriam Makeba always claimed her status as, first and foremost, a free singer before being a political woman. She declared in 2000: “ I have never considered myself a militant. I was just speaking the truth ”. She declared before her farewell tour in 2005: “ I have to go around the world to say thank you and farewell. Then, I want my ashes to be spread across the Indian Ocean. That way, I will be able to flow to any country in the world ”.

Not only was she one of the major artists of the twentieth century, Miriam Makeba was the embodiment of the acknowledgement of African Cultures. Her whole life was a permanent struggle against injustice. She remained a militant artist, an ambassador for the whole continent, a true panafricanist and a symbol for freedom to the end of her days.

Decided in 2011 by the CODESRIA Executive Committee, the Miriam Makeba will be delivered, for the first time at the 13th CODESRIA General Assembly.