Come back, Africa and the Miriam Makeba tribute


© Drum Covers / Baileys African History Archive / Africa Media Online

American independent Filmmaker Lionel Rogosin said that after the Second World War, he made a vow to fight racism and fascism wherever he found it. He decided to make Come Back, Africa, to expose the brutality of South Africa’s Apartheid regime. The film was Miriam Makeba’s screen debut. Ironically, its success both launched Miriam to global superstardom, and brought on her uneventful exile.

Come back, Africa in a nutshell, documents the unfolding drama of a man trying to find a job and provide for his family, under the restrictive laws of apartheid. The man is seen struggling through pass laws designed to keep him from getting work and at the same time, keep him jail-doomed; until he is reduced to a cycle of frustration and overwhelming helplessness.

Allegedly, under the watchful eyes of apartheid police it was nearly impossible for the film crew to gather film footage. Rogosin said that when the police were watching, the crew pretended to be shooting a documentary on African music, but when the police looked away, they went back to filming their story on the harsh realities of living under apartheid.

A charmingly young Miriam Makeba played a small but significant role, singing two songs (‘Lakutshon Ilanga’ and ‘Saduva’). She is seen here, belting beautifully in one of Sophiatown’s shebeens. Miriam was a singer with a dynamic vocal range. Her voice had an emotional consciousness, that could induce the delusion of intimate contact in even the most impersonal auditorium and with the most detached audience. One of the iconic photos from the film, was of Miriam’s svelte statuesque frame in an off-the-shoulder dress (also featured on the cover of Drum magazine above, 1957).


Miriam Makeba 1957, Jo’burg. (The same year she wrote her first composition, the iconic Afro pop hit, Pata Pata).


Zenzile Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg on 4 March 1932, during a time of economic depression. Her mother Christina, a domestic worker, was imprisoned for six months for illegally brewing beer to sell in the streets to thirsty workers, to help make ends meet. Christina took her 18 days old daughter Miriam with her to prison, as the child’s father Caswell, was not present in the family’s life at the time.

Christina was also a Sangoma (a practitioner of herbal medicine, divination and counselling in traditional Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi societies of Southern Africa). Eighteen years later when Miriam would be diagnosed with breast cancer, it was Christina’s unconventional traditional medicine that would successfully cure her, and Miriam would in 2009 release an album of parables and spiritual lullabies titled Sangoma, in tribute of the practice.  Having spent very little time in Miriam’s life, her father Caswell passed away when she was six. Miriam was then sent to live with her grandmother at a compound in Riverside, Pretoria. She was already singing at a young age – in the choir of the primary school she attended – and performed her first solo ‘What a sad life for the Black man’ for the 1947 Royal Visit, even though after waiting in the rain to sing, the royal visitor drove by without stopping to hear them perform. When she was 13, she entered a talent show at a missionary school and walked off with the first prize.

Miriam lived a remarkable childhood and had to grow up quick! She began her work life as a child, helping her mother clean houses. She worked as a nanny and maid, even while attending school, then went on to have her first and only child Bongi at the age of 18, with her first of five husbands James Kubay. The beauty of Miriam’s shinning star, was her resilience – her indefatigable ability to overcome even the harshest of cards dealt, and continue on as if no misfortune had just come her way! She was an inspiration. Her relationship with Kubay ended shortly after she was diagnosed with breast cancer – he left her. In the 1950s, she lived in Sophiatown when it was a vibrant place and one of the few areas where all races could mix. It was the scene where Kwela music, Marabi, African jazz and Big Band music became popular. Living in Sophiatown did wonders for Miriam’s singing career, it exposed her to unprecedented opportunities.


Miriam’s professional career started in her cousin’s band, the Cuban Brothers. She was at first cleaning taxis for him, and when he asked her to sing in his band, she accepted. The band was a small combo with Miriam fronting a male vocal quartet. One evening, Nathan Mdlhedlhe of the Manhattan Brothers – South Africa’s number one African jazz harmony group at the time – caught the act performing and asked Miriam to audition. She was hired! For Miriam, it was a much needed good turn for a 20 year old with a lifetime of experiences, including growing up as an infant in prison, the death of a father, breast cancer, teenage motherhood and abandonment by husband. But the best was yet to come for Miriam.

It wasn’t until Miriam began to sing for the Manhattan Brothers and then appeared on a poster for the first time in 1954, that she began to build a reputation. In the band, she covered jazz and pop standards, listing Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn as two of her all-time favorite performers! The band however retained an interest in the music performed in the Sheebens, by domestic and mine workers, drawn from the many ethnic groups throughout Southern Africa. As a result, they performed local music in local languages, as well as Western standards in Xhosa and Zulu languages. For the most part, it is uncertain whether the band did this for branding purposes, or if their decision was influenced by the fact that under apartheid, it was illegal for a black to sing in english. It is rumored that the band encouraged Miriam to perform the Gumboot (a high energy, high rhythmic dance), possibly the first woman to do so on stage – a dance birthed in apartheid South Africa, where miners embellished wellington boots with bells, to find alternative means to communicate in the mines, as there was a strict no talking policy among workers otherwise they would get punished by their boss. Traditional Gumboot dancing was also conceived as an alternative to drumming – another cultural past time restricted under apartheid (there have been many modern dramatizations of the Gumboot and the life of miners under apartheid).

Miriam was billed, affectionately, “our own nut brown baby” and “the Nightingale” by the Manhattan Brothers. When her picture graced Coca-Cola billboards and magazine ads, everyone in South Africa knew Miriam Makeba by name. She was the Monroe of her time, and would in fact later perform alongside Marilyn in New York in 1962, at John F. Kennedy’s birthday. Miriam toured South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Congo with the Manhattans until 1957, after which she began singing in an all-girls group, the Skylarks, which combined jazz and traditional African melodies. They toured extensively with promoter Alf Herberts, a famous promoter back in the day, of the enterprise ‘African Jazz and Variety’, which promised top African acts good wages for regular work, and secured artist passports for tours. The Skylarks went to extraordinary lengths to perform under apartheid restrictions. Performing in the backyards of sympathetic whites, they would quickly change their outfits and pretend to be maids and servants, when a guest visited or when tipped off the police were coming. If they were in a car on their way to a venue, they also had to lay on the floor, to avoid being noticed to be violating laws that restricted movements of Blacks in urban areas. Miriam continued to work hard to prove herself at every given opportunity. She was easily the most prominent female pop sensation of her time. She was in high demand and when on tour, bands and promoters found her very easy to work with. In 1959, she joined the sixty-three member cast of Todd Matshikiza’s musical King Kong, backed by a fourteen-piece orchestra that included trumpeter Hugh Masekela, whom she would later marry. She played Joyce, the female lead. King Kong was billed the first all African jazz Opera. It was such an undeniable success that apartheid South Africa’s national media, the White Star, dubbed it ‘the greatest thrill in 20 years of South African theatre-going’. Miriam had a lot of luck at this point, her career was moving at a pace as that of artistes, only in America or Europe did. King Kong added luster to Miriam’s star, and paved the way for her next career undertaking.


At the time Miriam starred in Come back, Africa, she was unaware of the consequences that would arise from starring in the film. Just before the film was released, South Africa’s Apartheid govt passed a new law that forbade blacks from performing in any of the City Halls. Rogosin bribed officials in South Africa against the payment of a bond, and organized a visa, to get Miriam out of the country to present the film with him at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Critic’s Prize.

In Venice, the film and Miriam’s singing and afro hair-style created a sensation. Miriam got introduced to Harry Belafonte, in London, who then offered further performance platforms to her, that took her to the U.S. Pretoria’s Sangoma child became an instant hit in the States, where many were impressed with the way she fused jazz with traditional African songs. It was also Harry Belafonte, her newest fan in London, who organized her visa to the U.S. She performed for former US President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden. Among her other admirers were Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Nina Simone and Miles Davis.


Miriam once said in an interview that after the new laws were passed in South Africa, banning black performers from performing in the City Halls, there was no longer any scope for her as a black entertainer to remain in the country. She was the first black musician to leave South Africa on account of apartheid, and over the years many others would follow her. She opted to stay in the U.S and work on her career, and soon sent for her daughter, Bongi, to join her.

Miriam’s joy at being reunited with Bongi in 1960 was short-lived. In the typical unpredictability of life that Miriam had come to know, her own mother died soon after.

“I sent a telegram to my mother telling her that my daughter had arrived safely in the United states. The day she received my telegram, she died.” – Miriam Makeba.

It was when she wanted to go home to attend the funeral, that she was informed by the apartheid regime that her passport had been revoked, for her participation in Rogosin’s film, essentially preventing her from returning home to her family. It was the beginning of her exile. The minority apartheid rule of South Africa considered Makeba’s success and growing international soap-box as a threat. Of course, although these tumults may have dampened Miriam’s spirit, temporarily, she wasn’t deterred. She was a singer with the heart of a thousand activists. Her continuous mistreatment at the hands of apartheid, only made her openly vocal against it. Her cause soon gained her powerful allies in the U.S. On the entertainment scene, under the guardianship of Belafonte, she ditched the jazzy numbers and concentrated on Zulu and Xhosa traditional music, and her own compositions. Her new sound fit right in with the folk revival movement that American music was being weaned to at the time. Utilizing her growing profile, in 1963 she rendered a remarkable anti-apartheid speech at the U.N, testifying against the Sharpsville Massacre (1960), police brutality, humiliating and restrictive pass laws, and mass arrests.

“I ask all the leaders of the world: would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place, would you not resist if you were allowed no right in your own country because the color of your skin was different from the color of the rulers?” – Miriam Makeba, UN Speech 1963.

The government of South Africa responded by banning her records from the radio and shops, and revoking her citizenship. Was Miriam shocked by her country’s response? African performer Anjelique Kidjo called Miriam’s speech at the UN, an act of courage, and a first for an African Artiste.

“Makeba was the first African Artiste ever, that spoke at the United Nations, and asked for the boycott of [apartheid] SA. It took guts to do that in the 60s” – Kidjo.


In spite of her re-occurring troubles, Miriam always managed to be gracious and kind to others, and kept her personal life private. She exhumed a natural allure. She wore no makeup and refused to curl her hair for shows, thus establishing a style that would come to be known internationally as the “Afro look. She really was a unique brand unto herself. When asked what she thought about people imitating her ‘look’, she said:

“I see other black women imitate my style, which is no style at all, but just letting our hair be itself. They call it the Afro Look.” 

The Great Dame of African Music, and Empress of song, grew from success to success in America. In 1963, she gave a solo concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall amid a hectic performance. In 1966, she won a Grammy award for An Evening with Harry Belafonte, 1965, then went on to be the first black woman to have a Top-Ten hit in America and worldwide with Pata Pata in 1967. In total, she recorded four albums and the famous Qogothwane (The “Click” Song) in the U.S.A. Time magazine called her the “most exciting new singing talent to appear in many years” and likened the Click Song to “the popping of champagne corks.”  She became so identified with the Clicking sound – a sound basic to the Xhosa language, made with the percussive flick of the tongue off the root of the mouth – that reviews began calling her, “The click-click girl”. In the media, Miriam was a sensation, although this sentiment was not shared by her own country, nor was this sensationalism present in her own personal life. Her marriage to Hugh Masekela ended in 1966. It lasted two years and Hugh reportedly said they were too much like brother and sister for the marriage to work. He was her third husband.

Miriam’s life was a continuous resolve to stand against oppression and to communicate hope through music. This was her legacy and it cost her a lot. She married militant African-American civil rights activist and Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) in 1968 and woke the next day to find all her american tours and record deals cancelled. All of a sudden, someone who was applauded for fighting apartheid in South Africa, was now considered a radical for associating with those suggesting a similar struggle was required in the U.S. The FBI followed her everywhere and the government took away her right to work. It felt like living in South Africa under limiting pass laws and constant harassment, all over again. Both Miriam and Carmichael moved to Guinea at the invitation of the country’s president, where she became Guinea’s ambassador to the UN. She continued to use her influence in music to draw attention to the plight of her people, performing gigs in Europe and Africa. She and Carmichael separated in 1978.


Now based in Conkary, and a Guinean delegate to the UN, Miriam address the United Nations’ General Assembly, twice, testifying further against the evils of apartheid. For her extensive work on racial equality, she received the Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize from the Diplomatic Academy for Peace in 1986.

According to the autobiography Makeba, My Story; the 1980s were said to be a very difficult time for Miriam. Her daughter, Bongi, whom she was very close to, died in tragic circumstances during the birth of her own child. Bongi was her collaborator and song writer. It was Bongi who wrote the song ‘Lumumba’ – a tribute to Congo’s first democratically elected president and Pan-African ideologist. Miriam spoke openly about battling with alcohol abuse and cervical cancer during this period.


In 1987, Miriam joined American folk singer Paul Simon’s highly successful Graceland tour to newly independent Zimbabwe. The concert drew attention to racist policies still prevalent in South Africa, and helped revive Miriam’s career, as she went on to perform for Heads of State and the Pope.

Following a series of concerts and under mounting pressure from the international community, the Apartheid regime began to cave in in 1990. Nelson Mandela was released from prison and convinced Miriam to come back home after 31 years of exile. She witnessed South Africa’s first democratic elections held in 1994, marking the end of Apartheid. It was a triumphant return. She became a goodwill ambassador for her country to the United Nations; South Africa, a place from whence she once was banished. All her records which had been banned, rediscovered her. She also visited her mother’s grave, whose funeral she had been forbidden from attending.


After her return to South Africa, at first, Miriam struggled to find collaborators, but six years later she had produced the album Homecoming, embarked on a Farewell Tour in 1997; another tour across Africa, Europe and US in 1998; and appeared in a number of movies including Mama by Veronique Patte Doumbe, and Lee Hirsch’s opulent and exciting documentary Amandla, about the powerful part of music in the struggle against apartheid. These were phenomenal times for South Africa’s Empress of song!

Although she used her music to communicate the realities her people experienced under apartheid, throughout her career she insisted that her music itself, was not consciously political. In an interview with the British Times she said:

“I’m not a political singer… I don’t know what the word means. People think I consciously decided to tell the world what was happening in South Africa. No! I was singing about my life, and in South Africa we always sang about what was happening to us – especially the things that hurt us.”

Miriam received honorary doctorates from both local and international academic institutions. The city of Berkeley proclaimed 16 June to be Miriam Makeba Day and in 1999, Nelson Mandela presented her with the Presidential Award. Her biggest commercial success to date is Pata Pata, originally released in South Africa in 1957 and re-released in the States in 1967. The song spawned other successive and successful re-releases. In 2005, she announced her retirement from mainstream music and kept her public profile to small gigs and low-profile appearances.


Miriam continued her humanitarian work through her Zenzile Miriam Makeba Foundation, and the Miriam Makeba Rehabilitation Centre for abused girls. She dedicated a bulk of her time to supporting campaigns for drug abuse and HIV/AIDS awareness, and against violence and injustice in multiple African countries. She was in fact campaigning as she collapsed on stage after a 30 minute performance, in Italy in 2008, for the right to speak out against the Camorra, a mafia-like organization local to the region of Campania. She was 76, and a selfless heart of gold!

“I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots. Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising,” – Miriam Makeba, in her Biography (2004)


Miriam’s voice conveyed the essence of struggle. She could soar operatically, she could whisper, roar, hiss, growl and shout, as if her voice was maneuvering against the tides of the unpredictable frustrations induced by restrictive laws. She sang a lot of songs in Native African languages and one of her crowning trademarks was her ability to make the epiglottal clicks of the Xhosa language while singing. She had a presence on stage – lively although unassuming, yet sensual – she would often gyrate her hips rhythmically, in circles, to the tempo of the drum.

Perhaps one of the reasons she is called Mama Afrika is because she contains all the strength, warmth, resilience, sensuousness, and beauty of Africa as well as its sounds. She epitomizes the grace of the average African woman in Africa, who is mother, home-carer, business woman, daughter, sister, wife, friend and community back-bone.

Nelson Mandela was much disheartened by Makeba’s passing. When she died, he said:

Her haunting melodies gave voice to the pain of exile and dislocation which she felt for 31 long years. At the same time, her music inspired a powerful sense of hope in all of us… The sudden passing of our beloved Miriam has saddened us and our nation… She was the mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours. It was fitting that her last moments were spent on a stage, enriching the hearts and lives of others… She was South Africa’s first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Afrika”. – Nelson Mandela.

Miriam Makeba was a singer with an activist’s heart. She is remembered mainly for being one of the most visible and outspoken opponent of South Africa’s apartheid regime from the 1960s till its dismantling in the early 1990s. Her personal life however was an epic tragedy of injustice, domestic upheaval, exile and perpetual torment. A symbol of liberation, she should also be celebrated for the grace with which she weathered the consequences of opposing apartheid, and all the other losses she nursed in her remarkable life.

Farewell Mama Afrika! Empress of African Song! Miriam Makeba, what an inspiration!


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