So revered is Nelson Mandela today that it is easy to forget that for decades he was considered a terrorist by many foreign governments, as well as some of his now supporters.
The anti-apartheid hero was on a US terror watch list until 2008 and while still on Robben Island, the then-British prime minister “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher described his African National Congress (ANC) as a “typical terrorist organization.”
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 organizer 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 said 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,” Hollingsworth said.
“Mandela and the movement should be seen as something positive, confident, something you would like to be in your living room with,” he added.
While Hollingsworth dealt with artists, Mike Terry — head of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement in London — dealt with the ANC and the skeptics 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.
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,” Hollingsworth said.
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 honor 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.
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.