Tuesday, October 27, 2020
Mothers from the Motherland
By Yussuf J. Simmonds (Managing Editor)
Published May 5, 2011

“They led the way and bore the pain for an entire continent”




Winnie Mandela is like no other woman in Africa because she has given all that she humanly can and is still giving so that her people, and all of Africa, may be free. She is eternally and inextricably linked to her former husband, Nelson Mandela, primarily because she is identified by his name “Mandela,” but she has carved out her own place and space in history. After South Africa held its first multiracial election and a new cabinet was appointed, Winnie Mandela was chosen to be Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. She has certainly carved out her own niche.

But earning the title, “Mother of Africa,” has had many downsides for her and she has suffered tremendously to gain and attain the respect and dignity, she now commands. A controversial figure, an anti-apartheid warrior, freedom fighter and activist, she is loved by many and reviled by others for some the actions she has taken on behalf of the liberation of Black people in her country (South Africa).

She was born a member of the Xhosa-speaking people in the village of Bizana in the Pondo region in Transkei of what is now the Eastern Cape Province of South Africa. Born as Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela, she was the fourth of eight children born to Columbus and Gertrude Madikizela. Her parents were educated by English-speaking missionaries and they both were teachers at the local primary school. Her mother taught domestic science (a combination of good home care training for young African girls, and to be servants for White people), and her father taught history and also worked for the tribal government. Her mother died when she was about nine years old.

During that time, there was an increase in anti-apartheid activity and the African National Congress (ANC) was at the forefront of many campaigns against government regulations especially in the urban areas. When Madikizela finished her schooling, her interest in the ANC led her to establish a connection with the movement and several of its members including Adelaide Tsukudu, (with whom she worked and shared the room at a boarding house), wife of Oliver Tambo, ANC’s president and another member, a young lawyer, Nelson Mandela. Madikizela and Mandela began a courtship that was described, at best, as unorthodox. He had to devote much of his time to his defense in a treason trial; he was an executive committee member of the ANC; and he had a law practice (along with Tambo).

But they got married in Transkei in 1958 and Madikizela forever became linked to Mandela, in name and in life. After her husband’s first treason trial, he was found not guilty and they enjoyed a short semblance of family life–from about 1960 to sometime in 1962–and produced two daughters: Zenani and Zindziswa. Immediately thereafter, circumstances changed the course of the ANC Struggle and the organization was banned; her husband went “underground.” Eventually he was caught, tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Madikizela-Mandela found herself without a husband and the children, without a father for the next 27 years.

In 1984, her defiance heightened when she wrote her memoir, “Part of My Soul Went with Him.” It recounted her experiences as a single mother left to raise her children and carry on behind the imprisonment of her political dissident husband. It made the New York Times Book Review section.

Though her treatment was severe and extreme, her spirits were never daunted. Her unwavering commitment to her husband’s work and to the struggle for equality and justice for the masses of people in South Africa–and indeed, all of Africa–constantly placed her in harm’s way. In 1985, she was imprisoned in Brandfort, a rural town far removed from her home for allegedly violating the government’s ban on her movements and her cell was firebombed.

All these years, her husband had been languishing, though not forgotten, in an offshore prison called Robben Island. She had no physical contact with him for 22 years, but the relationship was strong. She began to surround herself with bodyguards for her own safety and they were soon the subject of criminal accusations and investigations. It came to a head when they were accused of murder and assault. This somewhat tainted Madikizela-Mandela’s image and some of her strongest supporters began to distance themselves from her. However, after her husband’s release from prison in 1990, there was some semblance of reconciliation with the differing factions of the ANC movement. She traveled the world with him but problems seemed to persist.

Her movements in and out of the country were less restrictive and she began cultivating relationships with other oppressed peoples worldwide. In 2001, she was charged with multiple counts of fraud and was found guilty in 2003.

However, an appeal judge ruled that there were mitigating circumstances and overturned her conviction, except one. For that she received a suspended sentence.

In the twilight of her life, Madikizela-Mandela continue to be strong, to oppose injustice and to continue to speak out against injustice everywhere. Her courage and leadership have triumphed over years of political harassment, and though she vehemently opposed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it seemed to have prepared the way for a better tomorrow for all Africans.


To most of the world the name Soweto conjures up all the miseries that life produces and human beings can endure however, it can also produce a pot of gold at the end of a musical rainbow. Letta Mbulu, the South African jazz singer, is the gold at the end of Soweto’s rainbow. She was born and raised in Soweto, South Africa, but she left her native country–physically, but not in spirit–in the turbulent 1960s due to the repression, restrictions and rigidity of the apartheid system.

Her travels allowed her to compare life outside of her native land and cemented the horrors her people were experiencing under the apartheid system. For though Mbulu received much acclaim as a member of the Union of South African Artists, life’s realities in South Africa stymied her development as an artist and that realization forced her to seek advancement away from her homeland.

Mbulu had already married Caiphus Semenya, whom she had met while touring with “King Kong” but her calling yearned for something bigger and better than what life thus far had offered. So in 1965, she came to the United States. She had learned that many of her “homies” (South African exiles) had found artistic refuge in the U.S. including such notables as Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masakela and Jonas Gwangwa, all of whom were graduates of the musical, “King Kong.”

Her talent quickly won her critical acclaim in New York’s competitive Village Gate Club and she began touring with another musical maestro and saxophone great, Cannonball Adderly. Mbulu’s relationship with the Adderly band continued throughout the reminder of the 60s. Capitol Records debuted her first album in 1967, “Letta Mbulu Sings” which she collaborated with Semenya, her husband. Unlike her personal appearances, radio stations did not play her music reportedly because no one would understand just the audio version, and sales were tepid.

Mbulu dropped her “unusual” last name and tried another album with Capitol Records. It did much better and gave her additional exposure that was noticed by Masakela who incorporated some of her work on a collection known as “Africa ’68.” And when he formed his new record label, Mbulu was one of the first artists that he contracted. As a matter of fact, she did the label’s first two albums bearing only her first name. After that she joined up with Harry Belafonte and they went on several musical world tours.

In 1973, Mbulu appeared as a singer in Sidney Poitier’s “A Warm December.”

In the late 70s, she chanted the opening theme song in Alex Haley’s “Roots,” I and II–considered among the highest rated television miniseries–in which she also used the interpretation of one of her husband’s previously recorded pieces, “Oluwa.” (In the music world, she was affectionately called the “Roots” lady, for projecting a sophistication and warmth that stirred hope for attaining pure love, beauty and unity in the world). Then there was a lull in the issuance of future albums in the U. S. but Mbulu’s career continued with personal performances, musical plays and collaborations with other entertainers, including Semenya. With him, she worked on his first recording called “Listen to the Wind” and then she narrated a documentary about the non-violent struggles of African women entitled “You Have Struck A Rock.”

Her contributions on the screen continued in Quincy Jones’ 1984 soundtrack of “The Color Purple” and as a guest artist on Don Cornelius’ “Soul Train.’ That was followed by vocal renditions on the Michael Jackson single, “Liberian Girl” from his “Bad” album and an appearance in her husband’s musical play BUWA, a presentation of South African Artists United, which was co-founded by Mbulu.

Around that time, worldwide attention had focused on the apartheid conditions in South Africa and many exiles including Mbulu began using their talents to hasten the fall of that system. When Nelson Mandela’s attorney was planning an international broadcast to mark his impending release, Mbulu was consulted and invited to participate in that monumental project. It broadcasted Mandela live and unedited to the world for 45 minutes and was the longest-lasting, furthest-reaching speech of all time.

She recorded her first record in Africa in 1992, “Not Yet Uhuru” which was arranged and produced by her husband and it included a version of rap music, which was dominating the music world at that time. It also had a grassroots foundation with which Mbulu could easily identify having recently returned from the source of rap music, the U.S. Back in her homeland with renewed prospects, a non-racial government and apartheid’s legacy the new but fading obstacle, Mbulu was honored with a lifetime achievement by the South African Music Awards in 2001.

Her musical genre has been described African, mbaqanga and soul. Music critics has said that her voice send warm and positive message to all South Africa through songs that appeal to the young and the old, and she bridges the racial divide in a land that so desperately needs bridges of all kinds.  


When Miriam Makeba arrived into the world, South Africa, her country, was deeply immersed in a harsh system of brutality–later on, it was officially called apartheid. She rose to become the centerpiece of South African music to the world and in so doing, portrayed a different South Africa, through her music, than what the apartheid system had wrought. She was South Africa’s ambassador of music. Makeba was born in Johannesburg on March 4, 1932, to a Swazi sangoma mother and an Xhosa father, who died when she was about six years old.

Once again, her life changed dramatically when she turned twenty. Makeba had already experienced her first marriage and was about to embark on a tour with a South African singing quartet, the Manhattan Brothers, who were doing mini-tours despite official roadblocks and restrictions. But this was her entry into the world of professional music. Though the quartet was popular, Makeba left them and joined a traveling show, African Jazz and Variety and eventually toured with them throughout southern Africa for eighteen months. Her time with the quartet and the traveling show focused her attention on Black American music idols, and she was greatly influenced by entertainers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn.

Makeba’s superior vocals earned her the lead in a jazz musical opera, “King Kong,” alongside her husband, Hugh Masakela. It was a huge success even though her country’s official restrictions limited the maximum exposure of her budding talent, and the musical had to be performed mostly at universities. She was now a star and received invitations to visit Europe and United States and other African countries. She was invited by Haile Selassie to sing before the Organization of African Unity.

Then she collaborated with an American film director to do an anti-apartheid documentary entitled “Come Back Africa,” which detailed the horrors of the South African system. The Italian government invited Makeba to the Venice Film Festival for the premier of the film and she accepted.

She traveled to London where she met Harry Belafonte, who was himself at the peak of his career and he assisted her to immigrate to the United States. With credentials as an internationally recognized star, she performed at President Kennedy’s birthday party and collaborated with Belafonte to do an album titled “An Evening with Harry Belafonte & Miriam Makeba,” for which she became the first South African to win a Grammy award for an album. It dealt with the harsh realities and political repression of Blacks in her country, and by her leaving South Africa because of that system encouraged others to follow including Masakela and Letta Mbulu.

Makeba’s success as a vocalist and the upward mobility of her career were balanced by her outspoken views about the government of South Africa and the apartheid system. In 1963, after she made an impassioned plea on behalf of her countrymen to the United Nations, her records were banned and her South African citizenship was revoked. Then she released one of her biggest hits in the U.S., “Pata Pata.”

In the U.S., the civil rights movement was full force, and though the U.S. did not openly equate discrimination and racism to apartheid, there were shades of similarities contained therein. Nevertheless, Makeba received a degree of artistic freedom and acceptability that softened the pain of isolation from her homeland. That was until she married Kwame Toure (Stokely Carmichael), who was then a firebrand of radicalism and militancy and who coined the term, “Black Power.”

Once again, Makeba became “persona non grata,” -though not officially, but by inference–and with her husband, she moved to Guinea, West Africa. There they both received a degree of respectability, and she continued to record songs and toured extensively. Her relentless outspokenness against apartheid was evident when the government of her new home, Guinea, asked her to address the United Nations General Assembly as its delegate. She willingly obliged and rallied against the system in South Africa. Although she regarded herself as a singer and not a politician, she never turned down the opportunity to expose apartheid to the world.

Makeba separated from Toure in 1973, but remained based and performed in Africa, with additional tours in South America and Europe. Her worldwide travels and fearless acts of humanitarianism earned her many distinctions and international awards. After again serving as a delegate to the United Nations, this time for Ghana, she won the Dag Hammarskjöld Peace Prize and the UNESCO Grand Prix du Conseil International Music award. She also received invitations from several heads of state including Fidel Castro of Cuba and Francois Mitterrand of France. She often returned to the U.S. where her “transgression” was no longer a hindrance. During the 1980s, she made a guest appearance on the popular “Cosby Show.”

Former President Mandela requested Makeba to return home in 1990 and she accepted willingly after her 30-year exile. Her career seemed invigorated as she starred in “Sarafina” a couple of years later. She was also the guest of the governments of Cuba and Trinidad. At 73, and in Cuba, she reportedly said, “I don’t believe that there would be rhythm without Africa. I am asked what kind of music I make and I say I sing music.” In Trinidad, for its Emancipation Day celebration, Makeba, was asked about her marriage to Toure and she replied, “That’s the best marriage I ever had …. I liked him because he was true to his beliefs, and he never sold out up till his death.”

In 2004, Makeba was voted 38th in the top 100 Great South Africans. No collection of African music would be considered complete without at least one of her recordings. She died in November 2008 at the age of 73.


When Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf graduated in Accounting at Madison Business College in Wisconsin in 1964, in Economics at the University of Colorado in 1970 and with a Masters of Public Administration from Harvard in 1971, she was the not the most likely candidate to be the future president of Liberia. But in 2007, she is rated among the 100 most powerful women in the world and is the first woman to be “elected” president of an African country.

As a result of Johnson-Sirleaf’s education and her familiarity with the American political environment, she has been able to help her country, via a close association with the United States. After she was installed as the president of Liberia, she visited Washington D.C. and addressed a joint meeting of the Congress of the United States to ask for assistance for her devastated country. Her first job was to rebuild Liberia’s war-torn infrastructure because the country she inherited was shattered and torn to pieces from 14 years of civil war.

She faced tremendous challenges during her first year in office and progress was rather slow. When she arrived in office, living standards of the people were poor; prices for basic commodities were increasing rapidly; and the Liberian dollar was depreciating at an alarming rate.

Johnson-Sirleaf held a string of international financial positions, including minister of finance; director at the United Nations Development Programme; economist at the World Bank and Citibank, Africa; and vice president of Equator Bank, Washington, D.C. These were the experiences that gave her a handle to put in place the kind of things that would place Liberia on the road to economic recovery and upward mobility.

Ellen Johnson was born in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia in 1938. Her father was a mixture of Gola and German, brought to Liberia and whose name was changed to Johnson. At 17, she married James Sirleaf and in 1961, she left Liberia for the United States (U.S.) to continue her education.

Ten years later, she graduated from Harvard University, returned to her native land and became assistant minister of finance for then-president William Tolbert. In 1980, the Tolbert administration was overthrown by an army sergeant, Samuel Doe, and Tolbert was killed. Johnson-Sirleaf narrowly escaped and relocated to Kenya where she remained in exile until 1985 when she returned to Liberia. Doe represented the Krahn people who were said to be descendants of the indigenous people of Liberia. He was the first president not in the direct lineage of the Americo-Liberians.

She returned to Liberia and ran for the senate in 1985. During her campaigning, Johnson-Sirleaf spoke out vociferously against Doe, was placed under house arrest, and was eventually tried and sent to prison for ten years. After a short period, she was released and allowed to leave the country, once again in exile, and she came to the U. S.

In 1990, Doe was killed and Charles Taylor took over as president. Johnson-Sirleaf returned and in 1997, she ran against him and lost. However, she continued her strident political activism by campaigning for the removal of President Taylor. By 1999, Liberia was engulfed in civil war; and the president was accused of interfering with his neighbors and fomenting trouble in the region. He finally left office in 2003 and Johnson-Sirleaf became leader of the Unity Party. New elections were held on November 8, 2005 and two weeks later, she was again the winner, and confirmed as the next president of Liberia and the first woman to be “elected” head of state in an African country. She was inaugurated on January 16, 2006.

First and foremost, Liberia faced tremendous foreign investment challenges; for decades its natural resources were turned over to foreign corporations that fled the country during the civil war period. To woo them back was a monumental undertaking and Johnson-Sirleaf was capable of doing, though time has been against her. But based on her financial background, international political observers believe there was no one better to build Liberia’s shattered economy than its new president.

She had to overcome residual effects of the period of unfettered corruption that was unleashed on the nation prior to her presidency. Johnson-Sirleaf had to orchestrate a reversal of the sanctions placed against the country’s timber exports–exports used by the previous government to fund its war–in order to cure the economic hardships that crippled the overall gross national product. Her courage and commitment to her country are an inspiration to women all over the world. Despite many challenges, as a mother of four sons, she has been able to meet Liberia’s many challenges.

The country is depending on her and she has gracefully stated, “We know expectations are going to be high and we need a woman to put things right.”

Categories: Legends

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