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Miriam Makeba: the exile ends, but the struggle continues

Miriam Makeba, and the fight goes on (episode 5). In 1985, when both her protector Sekou Touré and her daughter Bongi passed away, Miriam Makeba left Guinea, where she found refuge for over 15 years. A new and unexpected chapter in her life begins. She settles in Brussels but as always, makes sure to keep tabs on the situation in her native country. 

Listen to ou playlist “Miriam Makeba” on Spotify and Deezer.

In South Africa, the situation has reached the point of no return: international pressure – in the form of a boycott – is tougher, and township residents – now hopeless – are no longer afraid of the confrontation, despite the ever more violent repression that falls upon them. The apartheid regime is not dead yet, but it struggles a bit more each day to hold itself together. Moreso as informal talks are about to begin following the transfer of ANC leaders from Robben Island prison to Pollsmoor prison. In November 1985, the Minister of Justice visits Mandela. On the outside, artists take take hold of the cause and make it resound from Western stages. 

In 1986, Paul Simon invites Ray Phiri and Ladysmith Black Mambazo to perform on the Graceland album, opening the doors to South African music, still little exposed to Western audiences. He is criticised for ignoring the boycott (decreed by both the UN and the ANC) which prohibits foreign artists from collaborating with their South African colleagues for as long as this racist regime was in power. He organizes a major tour in 1987 inviting Miriam Makeba and her ex-husband who still remains her friend, Hugh Masekela. The tour passes through Zimbabwe, a newly-freed country from 1980.

The two exiled musicians also take part in the huge concert at Wembley, celebrating 70 years of Mandela, at this stage still imprisoned. An 11-hour show is broadcast worldwide, featuring Whitney Houston, Sting, Simple Minds, Mahlathini & Mahotella Queens Aswad, UB40, Youssou N’Dour, Salif Keita, Peter Gabriel, Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder, Tracy Chapman… Johnny Clegg’s hit “Asimbonanga” becomes an international hit. As Mandela writes in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom“Politics can be strengthened by music, but music has a potency that defies politics.”

Makeba is certainly aware of the power of music, becoming in 25 years the only chosen spokesperson of her people on stage and in important meetings the world over. On February 11, 1990, Mandela, who has not been seen (“Asimbonanga”) since his arrest in 1962, is finally released. Miriam is no doubt happy, but still feels apprehensible, stating: “The release of Mr. Mandela does not signal the end of apartheid. The sad thing is that he spent most of his life in prison trying to fight apartheid, and today he is still released under the apartheid regime. So nothing has changed here.” 

Returning to her country, after 31 years of exile. And the struggle continues.

But “Madiba”, “our father” as she calls him, urges her to return to her country. Just before taking her flight, after 31 years in exile, she tells French radio station RFI that the first thing she will do is “go and pray at my mother’s grave, that’s why I’m leaving here, because I was forbidden to return to her funeral. I will stay with my brother. He’s the only one I have left, there are only two of us, head and tail. […] I will sing in Soweto, when the time comes.” She lands on June 10, 1990 in Johannesburg with a French passport, given to her by the president’s wife, Danielle Mitterrand. A few months later, she finally performs on stage for the people of her country. The following year she performs alongside Whoopi Goldberg in the movie Sarafina!, depicting the Soweto riots of 1976. Despite apartheid officially ending in 1994 with the election of Mandela, she continues to fight other issues, which concern her own country and the rest of Africa. 

Together with Madiba’s new wife, Graça Machel – widow to the former Mozambican president – she launches into a life supporting children with AIDS-HIV, and opens a center to help reconstruct the lives of orphaned and young sexually-abused girls in South Africa. She continues to record music – releasing four albums up until 2008 – and performing on stage, taking her new battles with her to everywhere she performs. She may have embarked on a “farewell” tour in 2005, but still continues to sing to support the causes close to her heart. A goodwill ambassador for the FAO – Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations – since 1999, she returns in 2008 to DR Congo to protest against sexual violence to women, in a region crippled by armed militia. 

Six months later, without hesitation she visited Naples for a benefit and support event of Roberto Saviano, an Italian writer who denounced the mafia, whose criminal activities also affect the African immigrants they exploit and eventually dispose of..

It is there, at Castel Volturno, on November 9, 2008, that she performs for the last time “Pata Pata”, before collapsing backstage, falling victim to a heart attack. She was 76 years old.

“She was South Africa’s first lady of song and so richly deserved the title Mama Afrika,” wrote Mandela the next day in a press release, before adding, “she was a mother to our struggle and to this young nation of ours.” “Mama Africa”, who liked to recall “I do not sing politics, I only sing the truth”, sung until the very end, as exclaimed in “I Shall Sing”. A profession of faith that could serve as her epitaph

“I shall sing
Sing my song
Be it right
Be it wrong
In the night
In the day
Anyhow, Anyway 
I shall sing”