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Mandela pays tribute to ‘Mama Afrika’

Miriam Makeba, the South African singer who became a world famous symbol of the anti-apartheid movement, died this morning, apparently of a heart attack after performing at an anti Mafia concert in southern Italy.

The 76-year-old singer died after being brought to the Pineta Grande Clinic at Castelvolturno at the end of a concert in support of Roberto Saviano, an Italian journalist threatened with death by the Naples Mafia, because of his exposure of the mob in his bestselling book.

Born in Johannesburg in 1932 to a Xhosa father and Swazi mother, Makeba – often called ‘Mama Afrika’ and ‘the Empress of African Song’ – left South Africa in 1959. When she tried to return for the funeral of her mother the following year, her passport was taken away and she was banned from the country. She addressed the UN in 1976 to denounce apartheid, after which her songs were banned in South Africa.The singer lived in exile for over thirty years in the United States, France, West Africa and Belgium. She went back to South Africa in 1990, when the then President, FW de Klerk, began to introduce reforms which eventually ended in the dismantling of apartheid and the release from prison and subsequent election as President of Nelson Mandela.

Makeba sang with Harry Belafonte in the 1960s and with Paul Simon in the 1980s. She became the first black African woman to receive a Grammy award, sharing it with Belafonte, and her greatest hit song was ‘Pata Pata’ (Xhosa for ‘touch, touch’). She once said: “Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa and the people without even realising it.”

Reports suggest that, after performing in her final concert, Makeba had asked for a copy of Mr Saviano’s book on the Naples Mafia in English, and then returned to her hotel complaining she was feeling unwell. She died in the early hours of this morning.

The performer’s final concert went ahead despite an alleged threat posed by the Mafia to the security of those performing and attending. La Repubblica, the Italian newspaper, said that “not even the arrogance of the Camorra” had stopped the performance, with reports suggesting that threats had been issued to those constructing the stage.

The concert had been staged on a square where, last May, Domenico Noviello, a local anti Mafia businessman, had been gunned down. Castelvolturno, a grim and rundown seaside resort, was also the scene of a Camorra massacre in September, when six immigrants of African origin were shot dead in a turf war over drugs.

Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.