History Detective

Who was Makeba? The life of Miriam Makeba

Episode Notes

You have probably heard the viral song Makeba on Tiktok, but did you know that the song is about the South African singer and Human Rights activist Miriam Makeba?


Episode on Soweto Uprising

Episode on Lydia Kompe

Episode on Apartheid 101

Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history. Before I get started, I just wanted to let you know that I have just released a book called History, Her Story, Our Story, Inspirational Women Who Shaped Our World. You can find a link to the Kindle or paperback in the show notes. Today, I would like to introduce you to the woman who inspired the viral TikTok song Makeba, Miriam Makeba.


If you have been anywhere near TikTok in the past 12 months you have probably heard the catchy beats of the song Makeba by French singer and songwriter Jain. Or you may be one of the 268 million people who have viewed the original song on YouTube or the 273 million people who have listened on Spotify since the song was released in 2015. In the lyrics of the song, you may have heard the phrases “Mama Africa” and “You are the real beauty of human right”. So, let’s dive in to what those lyrics mean.


The word Makeba refers to a singer, Miriam Makeba, who lived through apartheid in South Africa. She became a global star in the 1960s in the genre of World Music. Her song Pata Pata became an anthem for the South African people during the apartheid movement and has 36 million streams on Spotify. 


Miriam Makeba was born in South Africa in 1932. When she was 18 days old, her mother, a nurse, was arrested for having made home brewed beer from cornmeal. Consequently, she and the 18-day old baby were and thrown in jail. 


Apartheid was the system of official segregation in South Africa where there was a white government, who made up a minority of the population, that ruled over the majority of the Black population. The Black population were not able to vote and the white government oppressed the South African people by introducing a series of restrictive and unfair laws that limited their access to education, land, and social and economic rights, among many other human rights violations.


During her upbringing in South Africa, Miriam Makeba lived in fear of white policemen checking “passbooks”. These were books that black people were required to carry with them at all times, and if they did not, they could be immediately arrested. She witnessed her proud uncle be physically reprimanded by a teenager with a gun for not producing his passbook fast enough.


If you would like to know more about the apartheid system of government, I have two previous episodes, Apartheid 101, which is an interview with South African teacher William Palk, and episode about Black Sash activist and later politician Lydia Kompe. I’ll pop a link to them in the show notes.


Miriam Makeba was raised in an education system that taught her that black people were inferior. In her 1988 autobiography she wrote, “Day after day we are treated like dirt and told we are inferior. It is drummed into our heads. First your self-respect disappears. You begin to hate everything that is black. The white culture is full of references to things that are black and evil.”  This last sentence is an astute observation about how the concept of evil, wickedness and fear is often associated with the colour black in the English language. Black cats, witches’ clothes, black Friday, black markets, black listed, black holes, and so the list goes on. 


These racial hierarchies were so ingrained in South African society that if a white man addressed her, she had to say, “Yes boss” and if a white child spoke to her, she had to reply “Yes little boss.”


When Miriam was 17, she became pregnant. This pregnancy was the result of a non-consensual encounter with an older man who happened to be a police officer. She ended up marrying this man but he was violent and abusive. He often locked her in her room and beat up both her and her baby daughter. He even cheated on her with her own sister. Because he was a police officer, she had no one to turn to when he was physically abusive as she was unable to go to the police station where he worked for fear of getting punished even more.


She did manage to leave him and as a young single mother, she joined her cousin’s Cuban style band. Society at the time, was not only racially restrictive, it also had strict gender roles, and there was a stigma attached to women performing on stage. Luckily, her mother was extremely supportive and encouraged her to sing.


From here she was discovered by a popular band at the time called the Manhattan Brothers and they recorded an album that became popular. But because they were black, their economic rights were controlled and they never received any royalties from their recordings. Regardless, she was popular and toured around many countries in Africa.


From here Miriam began to tour the world and she has a small cameo singing in a film called Come Back, Africa. The film, which was anti-apartheid, was part fiction, part documentary and showcased the conditions and hardships of a man living in the squalid segregated apartheid townships. Paradoxically, he could not get a passbook without a job and could not get a job without a passbook. His family were constantly threatened with jail and exile. Ironically, the fact that Miriam Makeba had a role in this film that was critical of the apartheid government, was one of the factors that forced her into exile. 


The other factor that contributed to her exile was that after some of her relatives were killed in the Sharpeville massacre, she made a speech to the United Nations to encourage countries to withdraw support for the South African apartheid government. In her speech she said, “I appeal to you, and to all the countries of the world to do everything you can to stop the coming tragedy. I appeal to you to save the lives of our leaders, to empty the prisons of all those who should never have been there.” 


So, after these acts of defiance against the harsh system of oppression that was the South African government, she had her passport revoked and was not able to return to her home country of Africa without fear of being arrested. They would not even let her return to attend her mother’s funeral. However, she was offered passports from Ghana, Guinea, Tanzania, Cuba, Algeria, Nigeria and Sudan.


Luckily, she met some kind people who worked in the music industry who helped to foster her career overseas. One of these was a black Jamaican-American Calypso singer called Harry Belafonte. You may have heard of his famous song Day-O they Banana Boat Song. 

He helped her to record her albums and in 1967 she became the first black woman to have a Top-Ten worldwide hit with Pata Pata


Pata Pata means “touch touch”, it became a joyous anthem for those living under the apartheid regime and became a way that the people could sing, dance and express happiness while living under a system that systematically oppressed their human rights. In 2020 the UN rerecorded the song with Angelique Kidjo to encourage had washing and spread joy during COVID.


In the late 60s, Miriam met and married a Trinidadian- American civil rights activist who was a prominent member of the Black Panther Party. The party’s original purpose was to patrol African American neighbourhoods to protect residents from acts of police brutality, but they developed more revolutionary ideals including arming all African Americans. Her close relationship to the Black Panther party, put her on the CIA watch list and led to her decline in popularity in the US.


The President of Guinea- which is a country in west Africa- offered her an honorary citizenship and the President also asked her to become one of the Guinean delegates at the United Nations. During the 1970s, she went on a series of tours, travelling across five continents on behalf of the UN, UNESCO and various movements against racism and discrimination. She lived in Guinea for 15 years during this part of her life.


It was not until 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, that she was finally able to return to her own country of South Africa.


In the 1980s, a Swiss television show coined the phrase Mama Africa, and this nickname stuck. It appealed to both her audience and people from South Africa, because she shared their culture globally and fought for the rights of disadvantaged people the world over. From 1999 to her death in 2008, Miriam served as the Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations and was a strong supporter of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s fight to reduce hunger and improve the livelihoods of the world’s poorest people. 


She continued to work doing social justice for the final decade of her life. Her last official mission on behalf of UN was to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she visited emergency projects designed to help survivors of violence and help HIV-positive women and men feed their families and revive their livelihoods through farming.



I will finish the episode with a quote from her autobiography. “There are three things I was born with in this world and there are three things I will have until the day I die. Hope, determination and song.” I believe that she lived this truth for her entire life.


Now, instead of finishing the episode with a song, I will encourage you to seek out some of Miriam Makeba’s music, especially Pata Pata, or head over to watch the video of Makeba by Jain and see striking imagery and civil rights references she uses in the video clip.


This Kelly Chase, on the Case.


Don’t forget to grab your copy of my new book History, Her Story, Our Story: Inspirational Women Who shaped Our World, there is a link in the show notes. Also, I now have a History Detective YouTube Channel, and there are more than 16 educational videos now available, so make sure you head over there to subscribe.


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See you next time.


I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this podcast is being recorded today. I pay my respects to the elders and knowledge holders past present and emerging.