There is no way to evoke the voice of Miriam Makeba, sweet and sour, dark honey and the brittle click that is part of the Xhosa language. She came to Toronto with Harry Belafonte, must have been around 1960, and mesmerized us, college students out on a big Saturday night date, now with a heroine straight from Central Casting. She didn’t “do” her hair and that became the “Afro” look. She was brave, not pseudo-brave like we were, self-righteously condemning our elders for the use of the Yiddish word schvartze to describe “coloured” people.
Her first six months of life were in a prison where her mother was serving a sentence for selling homemade beer. The apartheid South African government took away Makeba’s passport while she was in America, exiling her for 30 years. Big mistake. That seductive voice singing of apartheid’s hell gave the protest international visibility. For me she will always be young and fierce, moving sinuously across that Toronto stage hurling defiance cloaked in velvet sound. She died in 2008 after singing at a concert benefiting an Italian journalist fighting the Mafia.
I don’t believe she would sing about South Africa today. Actually, no one is talking let alone singing about today’s South Africa. It’s pretty much verboten ever since white apartheid gave way to the progressively rotten regime of the African National Congress 18 years ago. I suppose it is better to be oppressed by people of your own tribe than by others, but it strikes me as just as wicked.
The 20th century has had a shortlist of pariah countries with which the left could berate the developed world (read America). South Africa was at the top until the ANC triumphed over white apartheid; Chile was another until Gen. Pinochet voluntarily stepped down to spend his remaining life under prosecution. Taiwan made brief appearances. All were eclipsed by Israel, the solitary Western-style democracy in the Middle East. You can probably cite the names of beastly Israeli prime ministers who have done such terrible things as giving up land for peace and getting shelled in return. But I doubt if many readers know the name of Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, leader of the ANC.
This month, Zuma is pissing off black and white South Africans with the estimated $27-million cost of improvements to his rural compound in his native Nkandla in poverty-stricken KwaZulu Natal. His place has several homes, one for each of his four wives. There are few details on the renovations apart from improvement of water and electricity mains and a helicopter pad, although newspapers have spoken of two Astroturf soccer pitches. This at a time when South Africa’s bond rating has been lowered, labour unrest is spreading wildly, violent crime rates are among the highest in the world and more than half of youth and 25 per cent of adults are unemployed.
The renovation is a secret project under the reliable eye of State Security Minister Siyabonga Cwele (whose wife started a long prison term for drug trafficking last week—and was divorced after her conviction). Transparency in government is a difficult business especially since the Directorate of Special Operations of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) was abolished by the ANC and Menzi Simelane was appointed to head the NPA after the dismissal of Vusi Pikoli. Pikoli had the gall to authorize an arrest warrant for police commissioner Jackie Selebi—who was convicted in 2010 for accepting a large bribe from a drug dealer. In the last few years President Zuma himself has been charged with corruption several times and cleared on procedural grounds. (Then there are transactions like the ANC government giving the Japanese firm Hitachi the contract to build boilers for South African power stations in exchange for what is said to be a billion-rand profit for the party.)
Zuma also got off a rape charge involving a 31-year-old HIV-positive family friend, an AIDS activist. Then deputy president of South Africa, he testified that after unprotected consensual sex with the woman, he had a shower which would protect a healthy man from catching AIDS. He explained that in his Zulu culture it would be rape not to satisfy an eager woman. AIDS rates are stratospherically high in South Africa including up to 40 per cent of inmates in prisons.
Being in opposition to President Zuma (or any ranking member of the ANC) is also a dodgy business. You risk getting expelled from the ANC, as did Julius Malema, Zuma’s one-time closest ally and now chief rival. After the expulsion, Malema had his assets frozen and last month was charged with money laundering and criminal charges of incitement to violence. He describes himself as an economic freedom fighter while sporting a Breitling watch and Yves Saint Laurent shoes and an impressive collection of real estate, according to his biographer Fiona Forde, all supposedly obtained on his approximately 20,000-rand-a-month salary as president of the ANC Youth League. Unsurprisingly, Malema is a protege of that pillar of morality, Winnie Mandela, proud supporter of “the necklace” (a burning tire placed around the neck of opponents) and herself convicted of the kidnapping of four boys, one of whom was murdered by her bodyguard. Going through the list of charges and prosecutions among the ANC you can see why Sunday Times business columnist Stephen Mulholland wrote last week that “This is no longer a nation state. It is simply a vast criminal enterprise . . . financed by hard-working taxpayers of all races.”
“Pata pata,” sang Makeba. Would be nice if her grown-up, apartheid-protesting fans of yesteryear dusted off their morals about all this. Indeed, were she around, that tsk, tsk, click click song of Makeba’s would sure come in handy.