South African singer and anti-apartheid icon Miriam Makeba died shortly after her concert at Castel Volturno, near Naples. Her final performance was dedicated to the fight against the camorra and anti-immigrant racism.
The ineffable strangeness of life -- and death – really hit home when I learned of the passing of Miriam Makeba, the world-famous South African singer and anti-apartheid activist known to her admirers as “Mama Africa.” I’m sure that if you had asked Makeba where she expected to end her days she never would’ve imagined a small clinic in Castel Volturno, a town outside Naples in the province of Caserta.
But that is where she died Sunday, November 9, at age 76, after having given a concert at Baia Verde. She had just left the stage when she collapsed from a heart attack. She had not been in good health for some time, but she insisted on performing anyway, in a concert to support Roberto Saviano, the young Neapolitan journalist threatened with death by the gangsters he had exposed in his book Gomorra.
But the concert’s organizers also targeted racism against African immigrants living in Castel Volturno and its environs. In September, camorristi shot seven Africans in a tailor shop, killing six of them. Italian media gave scant coverage to the killings, and the few accounts that did appear dismissed the incident as part of a turf war connected to the drug trade.
A headline from the Rome daily Il Messagero was typical: “Camorra massacre, five pushers killed.”
Police investigators initially favored this explanation, most likely because Nigerians are involved in the area's drug trafficking. But it later emerged that the victims did not have any connection to drugs, as other African immigrants insisted.
In late September, police arrested one suspect in the killings and identified two others thanks to the one surviving victim, a Ghanaian manwho feigned death as the assailants sprayed the African-owned tailor shop with bullets from a Kalashnikov assault rifle and a semi-automatic pistol.
The Ghanaian rejected the local tradition of silence (omertà) and identified photographs of the attackers.
For Roberto Saviano, the message the camorra had sent Africans couldn’t be clearer: “This is an area where you are not authorized to live.”
When Africans waged an angry protest in Castel Volturno, Saviano praised them for rebelling against the camorra’s reign of terror. “In contrast, when there have been massacres in other areas controlled by the camorra no one dared to protest or showed the same courage as the Africans,” he said.
The government responded to the killings by sending 400 police officers to the Castel Volturno area, later announcing that it would augment that force with 500 soldiers. Even Interior Minister Roberto Maroni, from the anti-immigrant Northern League, described the slaughter as“an authentic act of civil war on the part of the camorra.”
So when Miriam Makeba took to the stage at Baia Verde, she was not only expressing solidarity with one brave journalist, or with African immigrants. Her presence was a recognition that the struggle against organized crime in Campania is also an anti-racist struggle.
The organization Doctors Without Borders recently issued a report that documented the terrible conditions endured by immigrants living in the orbit of the camorra. Malnourishment, crowded and unsanitary housing, and fear of violent attacks from local residents were reported by the “extracomunitari” interviewed by the nongovernmental medical organization. Many told the interviewers that they did not go out after dark for fear of being attacked. The report stated that in the camorra stronghold of Casal di Principe, also in the province of Caserta, “there is an authentic curfew in force: all foreigners refuse to go out after 10 p.m. because they are afraid.”
(When I read this, I couldn’t help but think of Yusuf Hawkins, the black teenager murdered in 1989 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. Gangsters, both here and in Italy, act as self-appointed neighborhood border guards who target unwanted “outsiders.” Hawkins’ killing, it was learned years later, was instigated by a young mobsternamed Joey D'Angelo, a protégé of Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano.)
An African identified only as “Kwame,” in an interview with La Repubblica conducted in the wake of the Castel Volturno killings, wondered, “Where is the state in this country? Why doesn't it do its job? Why does it take two years to renew a residency permit? Why do I have no rights at the building site where I work? Why do I have to pay for a hovel the same price that one of you [native-born Italians] would pay for a real apartment?”
Miriam Makeba’s death in Castel Volturno, according to Repubblica correspondent Dario del Porto, has inspired “an extraordinary coming-together of two worlds that often are too far apart, the non-European Union immigrants and the local population.” Bishop Bruno Schettino said Makeba had come to Campania "to speak, with songs of justice, to all those who want integration [of immigrants] and who want to fight the camorra."Castel Volturno’s mayor, Francesco Nuzzo, declared that his city would honor Makeba, who “since yesterday belongs to our community, like everyone committed to the struggle against the camorra."
The manager of the clinic where Miriam Makeba died said that she "had come here to sing for our land, for all of us."
Nice words, lovely sentiments. But if Campania – and Italy itself – really wants to pay tribute to Mama Africa, it needs to come up with good answers to the damning questions posed by Kwame, and many others like him.