As it was true for Paul Robeson, the stage has been the political platform of a great many artists. South Africa produced no small number of these, and certainly parallel to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States ran the South African Anti-apartheid Movement.
Until the period after WWII, South Africa was a British colony, with reasonably liberal race policies. After WWII, however, as the Empire went into decline, a far-right white resurgence set the tone for the later legalization of racism, and the advent of Apartheid. Born into this environment was a young Xhosa woman by the name of Miriam Makeba.
Miriam Makeba’s story could hardly be more apt as an African revolutionary, and an international liberation icon. She was born in Johannesburg in 1932, but the first six months of her life were spent in prison, as her mother served a sentence for the illegal sale of beer. As a young adult she achieved some success as a singer, but it was not until her exile to London, and her marriage to Harry Belafonte that she achieved widespread recognition in Europe and the United States.
There was always a strong political flavor to her recordings and stage performances, and in 1962 she performed at US President John F Kennedy’s birthday celebration in Madison Square Gardens. Her testimony before a United Nations committee included a damning indictment of South African race policy, for which her passport and rights of South African citizenship were revoked. She became, in effect, an international exile.
It was her 1968 marriage to Black Panther activist Stokely Carmichael that put her in the American Civil Rights frame, and as such she was something of a crossover activist, linking the American race struggle with the South African. The couple was soon afterwards exiled from the United States, and they lived for fifteen years in Guinea.
Miriam Makeba’s activism was unique insofar as it remained aggressively at the forefront of all of her recordings and stage performances, and it was accompanied by such superb artistry that even the most irreconciled racists were moved. While exiled from South Africa, she remained an icon, and through her work, she carried the message of the South African liberation struggle to the theatres and living rooms of Europe and America.