The concert that transformed Mandela from terrorist to icon

June 12, 2013 6:18 am
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That Mandela's image has been transformed so thoroughly is a testament to the man's achievements/XINHUA-File
That Mandela’s image has been transformed so thoroughly is a testament to the man’s achievements/XINHUA-File
JOHANNESBURG, Jun 12 – 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 now 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.

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.”

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.

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