Malaika, nakupenda Malaika — farewell Harry Belafonte, a true friend of South Africa
Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Harry Belafonte became lifelong friends and kindred spirits in their struggles for justice for marginalised groups and sectors across society.
The King of Calypso, Harry Belafonte, used the platform of his stardom to raise awareness and funds for the liberation of black people around the world.
He was an important link in an international chain of consciousness that emerged in the 1960s connecting the struggle for the true liberation of black Americans to liberation struggles in Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and Asia.
As an activist for civil and human rights, who lived through the Jim Crow era, he had a natural affinity with the struggle against apartheid. He became a true friend of South Africa, and developed true friendships with two South Africans in particular: Miriam Makeba and Desmond Tutu.
When Mama Africa travelled to New York in 1959, Belafonte guided her through her first solo recordings and introduced her to his network in the entertainment industry. They recorded a Grammy-winning album together, and shared a similar strategy of directing attention from themselves, as performance icons, to more important matters of injustice at home.
The Arch adopted similar tactics after he became well known.
When he first travelled to the United States in the early 1970s, on church business, he was invited to dinner at the New York home of the extremely influential Arthur and Mathilde Krim.
Arthur was a Jewish attorney, head of United Artists, founder of Orion Pictures, and adviser to several US presidents. Mathilde was a fabulously successful medical scientist and academic who dedicated much of her life to public awareness of HIV and Aids, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Krims were active supporters of the American civil rights movement, and the liberation of South Africa and the then-Rhodesia. The Arch at the time was working as the assistant director of a theological institute in London, and beginning to make a name for himself as an articulate and authentic voice for the voiceless in South Africa.
So the Krims invited Arch to their home, once visited by Marilyn Monroe, asking him to say a few words. Among the other invited guests was one Harry Belafonte.
That dinner was arguably among the most important stops on the Arch’s storied life mission. Besides seeding strong friendships, it opened doors to expose him to the type of network and collaborations he needed, and had the insight and skill to use with aplomb, to maximise pressure against the apartheid state.
Network of support
His US network of friends — much of it centred in the civil rights movement, and in Atlanta, Georgia, the home of Martin Luther King Jnr, who he so much admired — played an essential role in the campaign the Arch led for economic divestment from South Africa and the imposition of sanctions. The non-violent campaign played an essential role in forcing the violent apartheid state to its knees.
Many years later, Belafonte remembered the dinner as making an indelible impression on him. It was there that he discovered what he described as a heightened sense of who the Arch was, and the soft power he wielded as a humourist. He said the Arch not only articulated the struggles of South Africans but also of black people in the US — “a universal voice”.
While conscientised Americans had become increasingly aware of the South African Struggle after Inkosi Albert Luthuli won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1960, the Arch’s accessibility, sensibility and humour provided Americans with context and nuance to better grasp the situation, Belafonte said.
The US became one of the Arch’s most important and regular stomping grounds to lobby support for his causes. He addressed universities across the nation and, facilitated by his influential friends, had the ear of many leading institutions and individuals.
He took the fight for economic sanctions all the way to the White House, where he found then-president Ronald Reagan unreceptive. He later described Reagan’s decision to remain friends with apartheid South Africa as being “utterly racist and totally disgusting”, but that’s a story for another day.
The Arch and Belafonte became lifelong friends and kindred spirits in the struggles for justice for marginalised groups and sectors across society.
They were born and passed on within a few years of each other, both having managed prostate cancer for more than 20 years and doing their best to encourage men in general, and black men in particular, to acknowledge and manage the disease.
Both were pathfinders in their professional lives, in the church and in Hollywood, whose accolades for good work beyond their 9-5 jobs should have made their domestic worker mothers proud (Belafonte had a difficult relationship with his mother, while the Arch regarded his mother as his role model).
Both were outspoken critics of homophobia, both worked with the United Nations, both supported the rights of Palestine and Palestinians to justice, and both believed former US president George W Bush should be put on trial for ordering the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
With the Arch no longer with us to applaud the good work of his dear friend and fellow traveller, we do so on his behalf by borrowing the words from a Tanzanian love song famously published in 1965 on the Grammy-winning album, An Evening With Belafonte/Makeba.
To Harry Belafonte we say: Malaika, nakupenda Malaika. My angel, I love you my angel.
Harry Belafonte died in New York on 25 April 2023. DM
Dr Mamphela Ramphele writes in her capacity as chairperson of the Archbishop Tutu IP Trust.