Mandela is now a household name, hailed across the world
for unifying the country with a message of reconciliation despite spending 27
years in an apartheid prison.
But it was not always so. In the 1980s, about two decades
into his imprisonment, the apartheid government had largely succeeded in
putting him out of the minds of most people outside South Africa.
When he was mentioned by international news media, he was
often referred to as a "jailed black terrorist leader".
The international music scene, however, ensured that
Mandela's struggle against racist rule did not go forgotten.
South African artists in exile, luminaries like Miriam Makeba
and Hugh Masekela, aided by American Harry Belafonte, spent their lives
educating fans about the harsh realities of life under the apartheid
Then in 1984, British ska band The Special AKA released Free Nelson Mandela, an upbeat but unapologetically
political song that remains one of the best-known protest songs in the world.
The song turned the call for Mandela's release from a
mere protest into a message of hope, and proved to be a tipping point that
transformed him into a pop culture cause celebre.
The next year came Sun
City, a We Are The World - style
track spearheaded by Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.
Springsteen, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Run
DMC and many others joined the song vowing not to perform in Sun City.
In the years that followed, artists around the world
released tribute after tribute in every pop genre, from Youssou N'Dour and
Santana to Public Enemy and Tracy Chapman.
‘Music was a
Trojan horse taking over the airwaves'
Those successes helped inspire producer Tony
Hollingsworth to make a bigger gambit to mark Mandela's 70th birthday in 1988
with a "Birthday Tribute" at London's Wembley Stadium.
"People can't imagine that, but in 1988, people
didn't know much about Mandela in any meaningful sense," he told AFP.
"Nobody knew what he looked like, what he sounded
like. We ran the whole campaign on a photograph that was 25 years out of
He approached Trevor Huddleston, the Anglican archbishop
who then headed the Anti-Apartheid Movement of overseas activists, and proposed
the concert as a way to change the world's perceptions of Mandela.
The ANC had by then made Mandela's release a centrepiece
demand of the struggle, but he was still often described in news reports as a
By getting the entertainment divisions of broadcasters
interested in a tribute concert - one in which no politicians were invited
onstage, Hollingsworth believed that the same networks' news divisions would be
forced to soften their language.
"I mean, it was a live event, I knew what was going
to happen," he said.
The artists delivered, taking to stage and repeatedly
denouncing the then government and demanding Mandela's freedom.
"Music in that sense was a Trojan horse to take over
the airwaves for 11.5 hours, in 100 countries, and to get that message out
across the world," said Hollingsworth.
"Free Nelson Mandela was the message in one sense,
but it was also a moment when the entire world came together for a humanitarian
cause," he added.
More than 600 million people watched the gig, which
included performances by Stevie Wonder, Sting, Whitney Houston, Peter Gabriel,
and a who's who roster of 80's pop.
Those concerts helped sustain public support for
sanctions on South Africa.
When Mandela was finally released in 1990, Hollingsworth
organised another mega-event in London to celebrate the triumph.
Taking the stage then, Mandela greeted the crowd with
"We thank you, especially for what you did to mark
our 70th birthday. What you did then made it possible for us all to do what we
are doing here today."
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