Today, on what would have been her 81st birthday, Google honored South African civil rights activist, [Zenzile ] Miriam Makeba, also known as “Mama Africa.” The Johannesburg native spent 50 years fighting against apartheid in South Africa and exposing the west to South African music. She became the first African woman to win a Grammy for her work with fellow activist Harry Belafonte but was best known for her song “Pata Pata.”
Her outspokenness about apartheid was not well received at home. She lived abroad in London and the U.S. When she attempted to return home for her mother’s funeral in 1960, the South African government had terminated her passport, thereby forcing her into exile. Makeba is famously, quoted as saying this about being exiled:
“I always wanted to leave home,” she told author Hank Bordowitz. “I never knew they were going to stop me from coming back. Maybe, if I knew, I never would have left. It is kind of painful to be away from everything that you’ve ever known. Nobody will know the pain of exile until you are in exile. No matter where you go, there are times when people show you kindness and love, and there are times when they make you know that you are with them but not of them. That’s when it hurts.”
Over the years Guinea, Belgium and Ghana issued Makeba international passports. Throughout her life, she held nine passports and was granted honorary citizenship in 10 countries.
The fact that she was booted out of her homeland didn’t stop her from fighting. She spoke out against apartheid in front of the United Nations in 1963. She also campaigned to get Nelson Mandela out of prison.
When he was released, Mandela convinced Makeba to come back to South Africa using her French passport.
When apartheid ended in 1991, Makeba still performed around the world. The day of her death, in 2008, she performed at a concert in Italy. After she performed her hit song “Pata Pata,” she suffered a heart attack and was taken to a clinic where doctors were unable to revive her.
If you’re unfamiliar with Makeba’s music listen to her song “Pata Pata” on the next page. It’s pretty awesome.