In this interview conducted in Finland in 1969, South African musician and activist Miriam Makeba discusses the struggles of African people around the world. She also talks about her own experiences with racism as well as white colonialism and the universal message of her music.
Zenzile Miriam Makeba, or Mama Africa, her well-known nickname, was a South African, singer, songwriter, actress, United Nations goodwill ambassador, and a civil rights activist. She was born on 4 March 1932 in Johannesburg, South Africa and died on 9 November 2008 at the age of 76. Makeba advocated against the Apartheid and white-minority government in South Africa, however, she is best known for her music. She made several popular songs critical of apartheid – the “Soweto Blues” being one of them – and became a symbol of opposition to the system. We praise her for the hope-inspiring music she put into many people.
“The conqueror writes history. They came, they conquered, and they wrote. Now you don’t expect people who came to invade us to write the truth about us. They will always write negative things about us. And they have to do that, because they have to justify their invasion in all the countries.” (4:54)
“And that is why I have to say the things I say in my performances. Because I know that I am right. And because I am right, I know I will win. The truth shall never be covered by lies.” (6:08)Interview Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wONkMpbl7N8
Interview with Miriam Makeba (1969)
Transcribed by Nick Ford for the African Climate Alliance
TRIGGER WARNING – the following text contains language that some may find offensive.
Interviewer: Mrs Makeba, are people happy in Johannesburg?
Makeba: That depends on which people you’re talking about. When we speak of people in Johannesburg we have to be specific, in that in South Africa there are two separate communities, and that’s the White community and the Black community. I will speak for my community.
I think we are happy. We dance, we sing. To us, sometimes it’s better to laugh to keep from crying.
Interviewer: Mrs Makeba, you sing your songs in a lot of countries. And obviously, quite obviously, it is not only show business. Which is the message you want to give to your listeners?
Makeba: I always feel that, even though one is an artist, we are first human beings, and we live in the same world as any other person. We as artists should never close our eyes to what is happening around us. Therefore, coming from South Africa naturally, my life was affected by my environment there, and the songs that I sing are just about my everyday life. The things I say are the things that have affected my life.
The message I am trying to give to my audience is not one. I am just trying to make them understand me as a person, and understand my country and my people.
Interviewer: Do you see some principle difference between the struggle of the Africans in countries like South Africa, Mozambique, Angola on one hand, and on the other, countries like Brazil and the United States, where they are the minority?
Makeba: There is really no difference in the struggle between the people you have mentioned because we are all Africans. We were just put in different countries by white people who took the people from Africa and spread them out. It is true that our problems are the same.
Saying that they are a minority, this really means nothing because the white man, wherever he is, whether he is in the majority or the minority, he rules. It just proves to everyone that we just have to keep fighting. We just have to fight that much more, because it does not matter whether he is majority or minority. He is always on top.
Interviewer: Which status are you aiming for between the whites and the Africans, at the end?
Makeba: That will depend on them. We are not worried about them, we are just worried about ourselves. It is our country. They came from Europe to invade our country. They took it. They have made us suffer, so we don’t have to worry about thinking what we will do to them and what will happen to them. It will be up to them to see fit what they can do when we have won, just like they see fit what to do right now, while they are on top. So it’s something we don’t worry about. All we are worried about is to fight and liberate ourselves. What will happen after that will depend again, on the invaders.
They could’ve come to our country and lived side by side with us. We didn’t mind that. In fact, when they came, we said ‘Come in. Sit down’, and they sat down, and said ‘Get out’. And now, it will be up to them.
It is known that Africa only had black people. Europe had white people. Asia had yellow people. Now, it is absurd to say that we Africans were not in Africa when white people first came. Secondly, the conqueror writes history. They came, they conquered, and they wrote. Now you don’t expect people who came to invade us to write the truth about us. They will always write negative things about us. And they have to do that, because they have to justify their invasion in all the countries.
It’s like saying, ‘When the Europeans went to America, there were no Indians there.’ It’s ridiculous, because they were there. I know that my people were there. We don’t write our history, it has always been handed down to us orally by our elders. The white man came and he writes history. You don’t know anything about any place until the white man gets there.
Like my husband always says, ‘Until the white man comes to any place, nothing lives. It’s only when he comes and says: “Poof, I’ve discovered you. Now you exist”’, which is ridiculous.
And that is why I have to say the things I say in my performances. Because I know that I am right. And because I am right, I know I will win. The truth shall never be covered by lies.
I have difficulties in many different places. And not only me. I think if you’re black, you have difficulties everywhere there are white people. And most white people always say that we should not generalize and so on and so forth, and in fact, there are even some countries, take Sweden, where some people say there is no racial problem there. But it is only because there are not that many black people in Sweden, so you don’t really see it as clearly as you see it in countries like the United States or even South Africa. But there is prejudice everywhere.
For instance, in Sweden, we were performing there. My guitarist, who isn’t really white, he’s Brazilian but looks white because he is an albino. Some people approached him on 4 occasions and told him: “Why does he have to play with n******.” And this was in Sweden, where people really often say they have no problem. Take his country, Brazil. We were there last June. White people in Brazil denied that there were racial problems in Brazil. But it exists, and we saw it every day. Everywhere I performed in Brazil I never saw black people. I only performed to white people. And they said it’s because: “Well they can’t afford to come here. It is too expensive”, which is another form of keeping them from coming to where they can enjoy themselves together with white people. They keep them poor.We have problems everywhere. Sometimes people send us threatening letters. Some send very vulgar letters, and tell us: “N***** get out of here and go”. So there’s nowhere to run. We just have to stay wherever we are and fight to liberate ourselves.