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 current 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 told AFP during a visit to Johannesburg.
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.”
While Hollingsworth dealt with artists, Mike Terry — head of the movement in London — dealt with the ANC and the sceptics in the anti-apartheid movement.
And there were many, including Mandela himself, 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.
With that musical firepower came contracts for a more than 11 hour broadcast.
“We signed with the entertainment department of television (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.”
“This is how we turned Mandela from a black terrorist into a black leader.”
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.
Despite some broadcasters’ demands for the politics to be toned down the message got out.
Singer Harry Belafonte opened with a rousing acclamation: “We are here today to honour a great man, the man is Nelson Mandela,” he told the capacity crowd.
Nelson Mandela was released from jail 19 months later, after 27 years in prison. A second concert was later held to celebrate.
“Before the first event, the prospect of Nelson Mandela’s imminent release from prison seemed completely unrealistic,” Terry would later say.
“Yet within 20 months he walked free and I have no doubt that the first event played a decisive role in making this happen.”
Mandela went on to negotiate the end of the white supremacist regime and establish multiracial democracy in South Africa.
Few seemed to notice that the concert was actually more than a month before his July 18 birthday.
This story was originally printed on June 12, 2013