She steps in front of the microphone, ready to open her song with a version of the following words: “In my native village, in Johannesburg, there is a song that we always sing when a young girl gets married. It’s called ‘The Click Song’ by the English because they can’t say ‘qongqothwane’.”
Graceful, captivating, and beautifully defiant, she sings:
There are various clips on YouTube of Miriam Makeba performing Qongqothwane throughout the decades, most of them starting off in more or less the same way.
Through her teasing of colonisers’ inability to pronounce the click sounds of isiXhosa, she makes a clear and strong statement about the inequalities of the time: white people were more than willing to exploit Black talent for entertainment, but they never seemed interested in learning about and respecting Black people themselves.
Despite her lighthearted approach, from her lips flowed a powerful African joy – and pain. For thirty-one years, apartheid authorities banned Miriam from her home country. Her longing to return became palpable over the entire globe and, through her work, so did the atrocities of apartheid.
When the exiled daughter of this country returned, however, she returned as Mama Afrika.
The Remarkable Life of Miriam Makeba
Like most Black South Africans and struggle heroes of the time, Miriam came from humble and difficult beginnings. Born in Johannesburg on March the 4th, 1932, she soon became acquainted with the inside of a prison. As an impoverished domestic worker, Miriam’s mother brewed beer to get by. She was subsequently arrested and baby Miriam was sent with her to prevent their separation.
At age five, Miriam’s father died and she was sent to live with her grandmother. During this time, she started singing in church, developing her love of music. She began her professional life as a domestic worker and lived in the vibrant Sophiatown in the 1950s where she was exposed to Kwela music, Marabi, and African jazz.
Her music career started off with her cousin’s band, the Cuban Brothers, and later the Manhattan Brothers. She toured with the latter for a while in Southern Africa and the Congo. She then sang with an all-women group – the Skylarks. In 1957, she appeared in the film Come Back Africa, for which she was invited to the Venice film festival to receive an award in 1959.
During the film’s promotional tour, Miriam received terrible news on several fronts – her mother had passed, the South African authorities had denied her re-entry into the country, and this meant she would not be able to attend her mother’s funeral.
Miriam was obviously devastated – the apartheid authorities had once again shown how cruel they could be (and how dangerous her voice was to their white supremacist mission). This was the start of her three-decade-long exile.
It would be impossible to provide a full account of her incredible life in a single blogpost, so for more details click here, or read Makeba: My Story, written by Miriam herself along with James Hall.
Mama Afrika’s Voice Touches the Globe
“I don’t sing politics; I merely sing the truth.”– Miriam Makeba
During her exile, she dedicated her music to speaking of and with South Africans during the struggle. She played an integral part in showing the world what people of colour were being subjected to under apartheid rule, although her music was banned in this country at the time.
Her music career was marked by more than the fact that she won a Grammy or worked with great musicians like Harry Belafonte or Paul Simon. It was marked by the fact that the stories she told were distinctly and proudly African.
Miriam was unapologetic in keeping to her roots, celebrating her AmaXhosa heritage through song and dance – enthralling the globe, but also making them aware of what was happening to her people back home.
She fought and risked her safety (along with her career), not only for the people of South Africa, but for African Americans and colonised peoples across Africa as well. It’s no wonder that she earned her eventual nickname.
May you rest in power, Mama Afrika.
In celebration of Africa Day, let’s take a moment to remember a woman who celebrated Africa in everything that she did.
To honour those who fought for equality, we operate with an ethos of non-discrimination in everything that we do. Click here for more details.