/ 15 November 2008

SA mourns Miriam Makeba

Hundreds of people paid their last respects on Saturday to music legend and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba, whose death last weekend plunged South Africa into mourning.

The public memorial in a Johannesburg concert hall drew some of South Africa’s most prominent politicians, musicians and artists who used song and poetry to hail the woman known fondly as “Mama Africa”.

The Grammy-winning singer collapsed after a performance last Sunday in Italy and died of a heart attack a short while later in hospital.

She was 76, having spent nearly half her life exiled by South Africa’s apartheid regime.

“When she passed away, she was doing what she did best. In her own words, she loved music more than anything else, and she was always happy when she was on stage performing,” said Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan.

He praised Makeba as “a woman whose name became synonymous with the worldwide struggle for freedom in South Africa, a woman who for more than three decades through her music projected the struggle of people.”

Born in Johannesburg on March 4 1932, Makeba was one of Africa’s best-known singers, famed for hits such as Pata Pata and The Click Song but also for speaking out about the abuses of apartheid.

South Africa’s white regime revoked Makeba’s citizenship in 1960 and even refused to let her return for her mother’s funeral. The singer spent more than three decades in exile, living in the United States, Guinea and Europe.

Makeba won a Grammy award for Best Folk Recording with US singer Harry Belafonte in 1965. But her music was outlawed in her homeland after she appeared in an anti-apartheid film.

While she was still in exile, she performed with Paul Simon in the US singer’s 1987 Graceland concert in Zimbabwe.

She finally returned to her homeland in the 1990s after Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

But it took her six years to find someone in the South African recording industry to produce a record with her. She entitled it Homeland.

The mourners recognised the troubles that Makeba had in finding the same success at home that she enjoyed overseas.

“Maybe we have done a lot of wrong as musicians,” said promoter Sam Mhangwani. “Maybe if we had had enough shows in South Africa, she wouldn’t have died in Italy.”

“As long as we don’t play the South African music for them on our radios, on our TVs, on all of them, it will fade away,” he said to cheers from the crowd.

South African jazz great Hugh Masekela performed a mournful solo of one her songs, with the audience clapping along softly, while poet Maishe Maponya read a poem that praised Makeba for “engendering fresh hope for the future”.

Former president Thabo Mbeki, the current deputy president Baleka Mbete, and foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma were among the politicians who attended the service, where video montages of her life filled screens next to the stage.

Jordan said that Makeba’s death left a hole in South African culture, but said she would have agreed that “there are many other talented youngsters who will fill that space”.

“I would appeal to the young musicians, never give up, keeping soldiering on as she did.” – AFP