JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – Miriam Makeba, the musical symbol of black South Africans' struggle against apartheid, has died at the age of 76 after collapsing at a concert in Italy.
Nelson Mandela led tributes Monday to the singer who had international hits with songs such as "Pata Pata" and "The Click Song" while she was banned from entering her homeland.
"She was South Africa's first lady of song and so richly deserved the title of Mama Africa. She was a mother to our struggle and to the young nation of ours," Mandela said.
Ever the activist, Makeba collapsed Sunday after singing in support of an Italian author facing Mafia death threats. She was treated while the audience shouted for an encore but died in hospital from a heart attack, officials said.
Born in Johannesburg on March 4, 1932, Makeba became one of Africa's best known singers and while Mandela was in prison took up the battle against apartheid through her music.
South Africa revoked her citizenship in 1960 and refused to let her return for her mother's funeral. Makeba spent more than three decades in exile, living in the United States, Guinea and Europe.
Her music was outlawed in her homeland after she appeared in an anti-apartheid film. But she was an international success, winning a Grammy award for Best Folk Recording with US singer Harry Belafonte in 1965 for the album "An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba".
"I kept my culture. I kept the music of my roots," she said in her biography. "Through my music I became this voice and image of Africa, and the people, without even realising."
But she also met controversy abroad. The third of her five marriages -- to civil rights activist and Black Panthers leader Stokely Carmichael in 1968 -- provoked anger in the United States and some of her concerts and contracts were cancelled.
She was also briefly married to trumpeter Hugh Masekela, another famous South African artist who spent long years in exile under apartheid.
Makeba was the daughter of a Swazi mother and Xhosa father.
She started singing professionally in the early 1950s with a group called The Manhattan Brothers, with whom she toured the United States in 1959.
Her career at home took off in the same year when she appeared in a musical version of the film "King Kong". She also made a brief appearance in an early anti-apartheid film "Come Back, Africa" which earned an invitation to pick up an award at the Venice film festival.
Once there however, it became clear that her life would be in danger if she went home, where harsh apartheid laws had been enacted in 1958. South African authorities revoked her citizenship.
Makeba had her biggest hit in 1967 with "Pata Pata" -- Xhosa for "Touch Touch", describing a township dance -- but unwittingly had signed away all royalties on the song.
She was often short of money and could not afford a coffin when her only daughter, Bondi, died aged 36 in 1985. She buried her alone, barring a handful of journalists from covering the funeral.
According to her biography, she also battled cervical cancer and a string of unhappy relationships. She denied rumours of alcoholism.
While she was still in enforced exile, she performed with Paul Simon in the US singer's 1987 "Graceland" concert in Zimbabwe, neighbouring South Africa.
She finally returned to her homeland in the 1990s after Mandela was released from prison and the apartheid system began to collapse.
It took six years to find someone in South Africa to produce a record with her. She entitled it "Homeland".
Tributes poured in both in her native country and from across Africa following her death.
South Africa's ruling African National Congress, which spearheaded the anti-apartheid struggle, hailed her musical contribution to the fight against the white-minority government.
"Miriam Makeba used her voice, not merely to entertain, but to give a voice to the millions of oppressed South Africans under the yoke of apartheid," said party leader Jacob Zuma.
Senegalese singer Youssou Ndour, one of the world's best-known African artists, called her death "a great loss for Africa, for African music and all music."
Sunday's benefit concert was at Castel Volturno, near Naples, to support Roberto Saviano, author of the best-selling Mafia expose "Gomorrah."
Makeba was last on stage, performing for the 1,000 crowd for half an hour before collapsing, according to an AFP photographer at the concert in the town considered a stronghold of the Camorra mafia.
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