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JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South African singer Miriam Makeba, one of Africa's best known voices and a champion of the fight against apartheid during three decades in exile, has died of a heart attack after a concert in Italy. She was 76.
Known as "Mama Africa" and the "Empress of African Song," Makeba was the first black South African musician to gain international fame, winning renown in the 1950s for her sweeping vocals. She was loathed by South Africa's white minority rulers.
Former South African President and anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela paid homage to the singer, calling her "South Africa's first lady of song" and saying her music inspired hope.
"Despite her tremendous sacrifice and the pain she felt to leave behind her beloved family and her country when she went into exile, she continued to make us proud as she used her worldwide fame to focus attention on the abomination of apartheid," Mandela said in a letter released by his foundation.
"It was fitting that her last moments were spent on a stage, enriching the hearts and lives of others -- and again in support of a good cause."
Makeba fell ill after a concert against organized crime in the southern Italian town of Baia Verde late Sunday, her publicist said. She died after being rushed to a clinic in the town of Castel Volturno.
"It was from a heart attack, but she had not been well for some time," publicist Mark Lechat told Reuters. He said Makeba had also been suffering from arthritis.
Radio stations across South Africa paid tribute to the singer, reading out text messages in praise of one of the best loved stars in the country and across the continent.
"Throughout her life, Mama Makeba communicated a positive message to the world about the struggle of the people of South Africa and the certainty of victory over the dark forces of apartheid," said Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Makeba spent 31 years in exile after speaking out against apartheid. One of her songs demanded the release of Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail for fighting white-minority rule. She returned home in 1990 on a French passport.
"The disappearance of Miriam Makeba deeply moves me and I share the sadness of her very many admirers in South Africa, France and around the world," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in a statement.
"Her disappearance leaves a painful vacuum worthy of her multiple talents and her immense generosity," he added.
Makeba always stressed her African pride through her hairstyles and traditional clothes.
She came from humble beginnings in a shantytown near Johannesburg. The former domestic servant first started to sing in her school choir and learned new songs by listening to recordings of American jazz artists like Ella Fitzgerald.
Mixing jazz with traditional African sounds, Makeba punctuated some songs with the clicks of her Xhosa language, creating classics such as "The Click Song" and "Pata Pata."
Makeba won attention on the international stage as lead singer for the South African band The Manhattan Brothers. In New York, she worked with Harry Belafonte.
While she won over millions on the stage, Makeba's personal life was marred by tragedy. Makeba had said her first husband often beat her, and she left him after finding him in bed with her sister.
Makeba married American "black power" activist Stokely Carmichael in 1968 and they moved to the West African country of Guinea, but later split. She was divorced four times.
Additional reporting by Antonella Cinelli in Rome and Tamora Vidaillet in Paris; Editing by Matthew Tostevin