Miriam Makeba: Activist on Two Fronts


Miriam Makeba is a Grammy award-winning singer. She is from Johannesburg and dedicated her life to fighting for equality in both South Africa and America

Key Words:

Miriam Makeba, Apartheid, Civil Rights, United Nations, Manhattan Brothers, Harry Belafonte, Stokley Carmichae

Miriam Makeba was a South African singer who dedicated her life to fighting for civil rights. She was born in South Africa sixteen years before the official start of apartheid. In 1960 she was exiled from South Africa. She was not able to return until 1990 as the apartheid system started to collapse. She is nicknamed Mama Africa and is a Grammy award winner. Most importantly she was a civil rights and anti-apartheid activist (Makeba, My Story). Miriam Makeba used her musical talent to actively fight against apartheid in South Africa and for civil rights in the United States.

Miriam Makeba was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on 4 March 1932. She was the daughter of a Swazi woman, Zenzi, and a Xhosa man, Caswell. She was the youngest of five children, including three sisters and one brother. Makeba’s full name is Zenzile Miriam Makeba. Zenzile means you have no one to blame but yourself. Her mother, in addition to working, brewed and sold her own beer. When their house was raided by police Zenzi was sent to jail for six months. At the time Makeba was just weeks old and went to jail so she could be with her mother. Makeba soon moved to live with her grandparents who put a high priority on church. There she was exposed to and fell in love with singing. From then on Makeba was always singing for events, with her brother Joseph, and everyday in choir for school. However after apartheid started in 1948 Makeba dropped out of school. She started her first job in a poor White neighborhood as essentially a twenty-four hour servant. Her second job was taking care of a young child. Neither of these lasted long. At age 17, Makeba became pregnant with a man named Gooli. He was a police officer and became abusive to Makeba after she had their child. Makeba later found Gooli sleeping with her sister and so she left him and never saw him again. After consulting with her mother they decided Makeba needed a fresh start. Makeba left her child with her family and headed to Johannesburg looking for work (Makeba, The Miriam Makeba Story).

In Johannesburg Makeba did not just find a job, she found a career. In her first singing gig she joined her cousin and his friends in their group, the Cuban Brothers. They performed at church, community events, fundraising events, and amateur contests. After gaining some popularity as a talented singer, the Manhattan Brothers asked Makeba to join their group. For the first time she was being paid and paid well to do something she loved. After some touring with the Manhattan Brothers Makeba was finally able to lease a house and take care of her own child. In 1954 Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers toured the neighboring countries of Southern and Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). During her time with the Manhattan Brothers, Makeba was very thankful for how well they looked after her. While on the road Makeba and the brothers were always being hassled because of their race. They could not shop or stay at the same place Whites could. When traveling they were constantly harassed by the police at checkpoints. In 1954 Makeba performed for the leaders of the African National Congress. Around 1955 Makeba joined a women’s quartet called the Skylarks. At this time Makeba was recording but had no idea how rights or royalties worked for music. Also the government was starting to crack down and sensor any anti government lyrics in songs. In her final gig in South Africa Makeba performed African jazz. This was the first time in her life she was performing for and interacting with White people. In 1959 she was given the opportunity to perform oversees. Makeba did not hesitate; she wanted to see the world and life outside South Africa. Before she left she recorded a song containing the lyrics ‘goodbye mother, goodbye father, and to my little baby goodbye, until we meet again.’ (Makeba, The Makeba Story, 12).

Brothers (Baileys)

Work against Apartheid:

Miriam Makeba’s activism started when she left South Africa and gained an outsider’s perspective. When Makeba first left Africa she traveled to Europe. With no time at all she started to gain popularity in England. While recording one day she met Harry Belafonte. He assisted in the development of her career. Belafonte helped her gain an American visa, which allowed her to move to New York City. Makeba released albums in 1960 and 1963, both times making the billboard 200 in the United States.

She later testified at the United Nations against apartheid. In her testimony she asked the United Nations to show compassion for the actions of Black South Africans. She also appealed to them to try and stop the coming tragedy and free South Africa’s unrightfully jailed leaders (Makeba, UN Speech). Upon hearing this the South Africa government revoked Makeba’s citizenship and passport. She was not aware of this until she tried to reenter the country for her mother’s funeral. She considered her mother to be the most influential person in her life so she was devastated she could not attend her funeral. For the next 30 years she lived in exile from her home country (Makeba My Story). It was by this point that she truly understood the evil behind the apartheid government.

An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, Makeba’s new album, was a cry to the world to look at the immorality of apartheid. She and Belafonte received a Grammy for best folk recording. The album talked about the oppression that Black South Africans faced. This album included the track ‘Beware, Verwoerd!’ a popular song among Black South Africans talking to the founder of apartheid. The song warns Verwoerd because Black South Africans are coming for you. This song served as a mental boost to Black South Africans. It meant Blacks were not in control of the country at the time but at some point they would be. This song was equally unpopular among the White South African community. If you were caught singing this song in public you would be arrested. This album was also the first United States release to contain Swahili, Sotho, and Zulu languages (Makeba ‘Beware Verwoerd’). This is a big deal because it means it is the first time Americans can listen to South African languages and cultures through pop music. In 1967 she released her most well known song Pata Pata. This song became a worldwide hit and gave Makeba stardom but more importantly gave her a large amount of influence.

Mama Africa was another popular album Makeba released. By this time Mama Africa was her well-known nickname for her being a worldwide known African musician. This album was released in 1983 and contained the song ‘Sophiatown is Gone’. Sophiatown was the most vibrant mixed community in all of South Africa. It was located very close to Johannesburg and was very attractive for all Blacks because of the short commute to work. However the government thought it was too close and too valuable for Blacks to live on. So the apartheid government came in and leveled the town to the ground. This outraged South Africans everywhere and so they found solace in Makeba’s song. This song also impacted the worldview on apartheid. Everyone who listened to this song could feel and hear the pain behind the destruction of this community (Makeba, ‘Sophiatown is Gone’).

In 1990 Makeba was finally allowed to return to South Africa. Shortly After Mandela was released he had a meeting with Makeba in Sweden. Makeba in Europe at the time went to Stockholm to visit him. Makeba cried and was very emotional that night. She said that meeting Mandela gave her proof that she was fighting for a good cause. Makeba also said that it made living life in exile worth it. At the end of their talks Mandela urged Makeba to come home. After some trials and tribulations she was finally able to return to her homeland. At the airport she was greeted by all of her siblings. She was very grateful and would go on to participate in ANC meetings and perform in freedom concerts. She said returning to her home was the best feeling she had her whole life (The Globe and Mail). In 1991 she teamed up with fellow South African artists and released the album Eyes on Tomorrow. This album talked about the future of South Africa and how great the nation could become.

Civil Rights Movement:

During her exile from South Africa, Makeba also dedicated her life to fighting for Civil Rights in America. During the late 1950s and 1960s Black pop culture and arts exploded in the United States. Makeba along with fellow artists Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Diahann Carroll and Cicely Tyson were all in New York performing and pushing for civil rights. These five artists traveled the country and the world singing against this oppression. Their home base was Manhattan or Harlem. At this time Harlem was considered the intellectual, cultural, and political center for Black life. In Harlem these artists would meet at the Stanley Bar along with other Black activists. During their time in Harlem they performed mostly in jazz clubs while the whole time committing to Black freedom struggles. They would change up their styles so that the critics could not classify or define them (Feldstein 27-32).

In 1968 Makeba married Stokley Carmichael. He was Trinidadian and a civil rights activist. He was also a member of the Black Panthers. Makeba and Carmichael bonded over their views on civil rights and their efforts to change the country. However upon their marriage Makeba’s record deals and tours inside the United States were cancelled. It was fine when they thought her songs were solely directed toward the South African government (Makeba, My Story). However, when her sponsors realized that she is talking about civil rights in the United States as well, she became too big of a liability. As a result in 1968 she moved to Guinea to fight for civil rights from there.

In her time there she became very close to the President Ahmed Sekou Toure and his wife. She frequently chatted and sang for them. A few years later the president named Miriam Makeba as Guinea’s delegate to the United Nations. In 1986 she won the Dag Hammarskjold Peace Prize. Hammarskjold was the second secretary general of the United Nations. He won a Noble Peace Prize in 1961 and the United Nations created an award in his memory. Makeba fought for equality no matter the audience. She performed and testified to anyone who would listen (Makeba, The Makeba Story).


In 2005 at the age of 72 Makeba started her farewell tour. She held concerts everywhere. In South Africa, United States, England, Sweden, and every other place she had ever visited. In 2008 while performing in Italy she had a heart attack. She had just finished singing her most popular song ‘Pata Pata’ and then suddenly passed away (Smith). Makeba was voted the number 38th best South African from a poll of thousands of South Africans in 2004. From the time she could sing to her death, she used her voice. She used it to be an inspiration and preacher. She called out injustice in South Africa and the United States. She was able to translate her popularity to help change popular views across the world. And in her lifetime she saw the success of the civil rights movement and the end of apartheid.

This article was written by Connor Kirkpatrick and forms part of the SAHO and Southern Methodist University partnership project


American Committee on Africa (ACOA), (1965). ‘Human Rights Rally’ from American Committee on Africa (ACOA), 10 December [online] Available at http://www.aluka.org [Accessed 31 October 2014] |Baileys African History Archive, (January 1956), Drum Social Histories, Makeba Image http://www.baha.co.za | Makeba, M. with Hall, J., (1987). My Story, The American Library of Canada Limited. Makeba, M. with Mwamuka N., (2004) Makeba: the Miriam Makeba Story, STE Publishers, | Makeba, M., ‘Beware Verwoerd’, An Evening with Belafonte/Makeba, 1965 |Makeba, M., ‘Sophiatown is Gone’, Mama Africa, 1983 |Makeba, M., (1963) UN Speech https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uWP5mBJ4HWs |Coplan, B., (1985). In Township Tonight! South Africa’s Black City Music and Theater Longman: Group Limited, pp.183-203. |Feldstein, R., (2013). How it Feels to be Free, Oxford: University Press, pp. 22-51. |The Globe and Mail, (1990). ‘Miriam Makeba Returns Home After 31 Years’ from The Globe and Mail, 11 June [online] Available at http://serialssolutions.com [Accessed 31 October |Theron, B. and Stewart, L., (2008). ‘Anti-apartheid solidarity in United States’ The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Volume 3, International Solidarity, Part 2, Unisa Press, Tsehai Publishers, pp.745-825. |Smith, N., (2008). Singer Makeba Dies at 76, from the Bloomberg News, 11 November [online]. Available at http://serialssolutions.com [Accessed 31 October 2014].

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