JOHANNESBURG So revered is Nelson Mandela today that it is easy to forget that for decades he was considered a terrorist by many foreign governments, and some of his present-day supporters.
The anti-apartheid hero was on a US terror watch list until 2008 and while still on Robben Island, Britain’s late “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher described his African National Congress as a “typical terrorist organisation.”
That Mandela’s image has been transformed so thoroughly is a testament to the man’s achievements, but also, in part, to a concert that took place in London 25 years ago this week.
For organiser Tony Hollingsworth the June 11, 1988 gig at London’s Wembley Stadium had very little to do with Mandela’s 70th birthday, as billed.
It had everything to do with ridding Mandela of his terrorist tag and ensuring his release.
“You can’t get out of jail as a terrorist, but you can get out of prison as a black leader,” he later told AFP.
Hollingsworth, now 55, envisaged a star-studded concert that would transform Mandela from outlaw to icon in the public’s mind, and in turn press governments adopt a more accommodating stance.
He approached Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, president of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, to pitch his musical strategy. “I told Trevor that the African National Congress and the anti-apartheid movement had reached their glass ceiling; they couldn’t go further.
“Everything you are doing is ‘anti’, you are protesting on the streets, but it will remain in that space. Many people will agree, but you will not appeal them. Mandela and the movement should be seen as something positive, confident, something you would like to be in your living room with.”
There were many, including Mandela, who asked several times that the struggle not be about him. Many others insisted the focus remain on sanctions against the apartheid regime.
“A lot of people were criticising me for sanitising it,” Hollingsworth remembered.
Eventually Terry convinced the ANC and Hollingsworth convinced Simple Minds, Dire Straits, Sting, George Michael, The Eurythmics, Eric Clapton, Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder into the 83-artist line-up.
Half a billion viewers
“We signed with the entertainment department of tele-vision [stations]. And when the head of the department got home and watched on his channel that they were calling Mandela a terrorist, they called straight to the news section to say, don’t call this man a terrorist, we just signed 11 hours of broadcasting for a tribute about him.”
The gig at Wembley attracted broadcasters in nearly 70 countries and was watched by more than half a billion people around the world, still one of the largest audiences ever for an entertainment event. Singer Harry Belafonte opened with a rousing acclamation: “We are here today to honour a great man, the man is Nelson Mandela.”
Mandela was released from jail 19 months later. A second concert was later held to celebrate.
Few seemed to notice that the concert was actually more than a month before his July 18 birthday.