When such an iconic figure as Nelson Mandela dies, the tributes paid are often self-referential. People remember him in terms of how he touched their lives, and how he influenced the world around them. I grew up hearing his name, through the news, but also through the many songs which were written for him. I was 12 when this song came out in 1984:
At this point in time, Nelson Mandela had been kept in solitary confinement for 21 years. As the leader of the African National Congress, he had been imprisoned for turning his back on peaceful protest, saying that peaceful protest had been met with violence, and that the only answer was to retaliate. He was viewed as a terrorist, and not only by the South African Government.
My memory of the 1980s was that it was a time of overt racism, and overt challenges to racism. Music was an integral part of this. Rock against Racism signalled the willingness of musicians to work together to end the unofficial apartheid in UK music. Bands like The Specials (who wrote Free Nelson Mandela) and UB40, featured black and white musicians playing together. The idea of a country in which black and white people were separated by law, seemed incredible. The campaign to free Nelson Mandela gathered pace, although it would still be another 6 years until he was released from prison.
This song was released in 1985. My favourite part is watching Bruce Springsteen sing this line:
‘We’re stabbing our brothers and sisters in the back..’
In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released. He promptly forgave his captors, and for the rest of his life worked for peace in South Africa.
This song was sung in his honour at his 90th birthday concert:
Written when it seemed he could be locked away for the rest of his life, this rendition shows the jubilation that was still felt many years after his release. The mixed crowd shows how many people identified with and felt part of his struggle. He was a great force for unity.
May he rest in peace…