Nelson Mandela’s death on December 5 presents an opportunity to tell this story. Musicians inside and outside of South Africa had a big impact on the ending of apartheid, an official policy of racial segregation that was practiced by that country’s white minority government.
One prominent black South African musician involved in that was Miriam Makeba. She was known as Mama Africa, popularizing African music around the world. Makeba was best known for a song “Pata Pata”, first recorded in 1957, and released in the United States in 1967. This is the song that made her popular throughout South Africa.
Makeba’s role in the anti-apartheid movement gained public attention when she testified against it before the United Nations in 1962. As a result, the white minority government revoked her South African citizenship and right to return.
Paul Simon’s tour promoting his album, Graceland, in 1987 became an occasion to publicize the plight of black South Africans suffering under an apartheid government. Graceland was to become a form of a bridge of troubled water, to borrow a song title from his earlier years performing with Art Garfunkel. Much of the Graceland album was recorded in South Africa. Although Simon faced accusations that this was breaking an international cultural boycott against the South African government, Graceland showcased the talents of many black South African musicians.
Makeba toured with Paul Simon promoting the album. One of the shows was part of a big event, The African Concert. Held in Zimbabwe, Africa in 1987, video footage showed Simon and Makeba singing duets.
However the musical event that is widely believed to have prodded the South African government to release Nelson Mandela sooner than planned was the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute. This was a concert held in 1988 in London, and broadcast to an audience of 600 million people in 67 countries. 83 artists performed that day, for a total of 12 hours.
A second anti-apartheid concert was held at the same location in 1990, this time at the request of Mandela himself, who by that time had been freed from prison. At this event, entitled An International Tribute for a Free South Africa, Nelson Mandela travelled to London, asking an audience of 500 million listeners to keep up the pressure to end apartheid. Apartheid did come to end in 1994, when Mandela was elected president.
However long before professional musicians outside of South Africa became anti-apartheid activists, inmates in South Africa’s prisons used music as a tool for survival. Music Beyond Borders, an organization that conducts international projects of the “uses of music by individuals suffering under oppressive regimes and its key role as tool for protest against the violation of human rights”, published one such study on apartheid in South Africa, entitled, Singing Through the Pain: Music in the Apartheid Prisons”. The focus of that project was Robben Island, the penitentiary where Nelson Mandela and others were imprisoned.
In the cells where Mandela was held, housing 30 inmates, music was allowed only at restricted times. These prisoners set up a choir in these sections, which was conducted by a music teacher outside of the prison. Music in this prison provided, according to an article about it in Al-Jazeera, “a model of cultural expression that advanced social change and by individual suffering and protesting the violation of human rights under oppressive regimes. It was an example akin to the recent rap and hip hop commentaries from the Arab Spring revolutions.”
Below you will find YouTube links to Miriam Makeba’s song, Pata, Pata, her joint performance with Paul Simon in Zimbabwe, and one from the organizer of the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute.