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Honoring Nelson Mandela at 90

When Fox broadcast an earlier Nelson Mandela birthday concert from Wembley Stadium it was branded generically as a "freedom concert" and artists were instructed not to mention Mandela's name or call for his freedom.
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I am on my way to Johannesburg to work on a project honoring Nelson Mandela for his 90th Birthday this July. But Mandela isn't there. He's in London for a superstar concert which will be happening on June 27th, my own birthday. It's part of a series of events using 46664, his old prison number, to raise money for AIDS victims and his foundation. I covered the first one some years back in Cape Town.

So far, there's been more press on whether Amy Winehouse will be well enough to perform at this event than on the honoree, the man they call Madiba -- his clan name in the Tembu tribe -- or the issue.

As for the concert, and concerts like it, I have been there and done that, as they say, perhaps when it mattered more. The concert I was most engaged with most took place in London in l990, just after Mandela's release from his 27 year prison ordeal.

In all, I have made five films with and about Nelson Mandela. It was one of the great privileges of my life. (Sorry I would rather do films about Mandela than Monica.) I had produced a TV special for PBS on his release, and also the first hour-long live US TV interview with him from Lusaka Zambia where he was reuniting with his comrades in the African National Congress. Phil Donahue did the interview live via satellite from Los Angeles. I felt like I had an up front seat to history. And I guess, I did, and maybe still do.

In those years, I was producing South Africa Now, a weekly TV series that was much about what TV news here covers and omits as about apartheid. I was also connected to the army of rock stars active on the issue. I worked closely with Little Steven and Arthur Baker and the 54 stars that took part in the Sun City Project, and who who sang on the Sun City anti-apartheid album in 1985-86. Steven's song called for a boycott of an entertainment complex in what was then considered a "homeland," but it was really promoting sanctions, a policy that was later imposed and helped force the downfall of apartheid.

Sun City became a global hit, but no major record company at first had the balls to release it on the assumption that the public didn't care or wouldn't buy it. (It finally came out on the Manhattan label, known for its jazz releases.) At first, our still segregated broadcasting system, black radio wouldn't play it because it was "too white" and white radio turned it down because it was "too black." It was only after MTV began playing Jonathan Demme's Sun City music video that music radio realized the song's importance. The fact that it was launched by the United Nations meant nothing to our entertainment commisars.

Back then, the culture police, as now, prefers to depoliticize culture. So when Fox broadcast an earlier Nelson Mandela birthday concert from Wembley Stadium it was branded generically as a "freedom concert" and artists were instructed not to mention Mandela's name or call for his freedom. Some artists did it anyway but Fox wanted sold the event as sheer entertainment with no reference to the issue it was commenting on. The leader who South African law mandated was not to be quoted in the press was now also excluded on television in the "free world."

Musicians were far more outspoken than newscasters. In that year, the song "FREE NELSON MANDELA" was a big hit in London. But, later, with Mandela free, and hailed everywhere and by every media outlet as a liberator, it was now okay to praise him even though he was still considered a terrorist in South Africa and other countries. He is still on our Homeland "Security" Terrorist Watch List, all these years later, and Congressmen are working to get him removed. (Whenever I hear "homeland security," I think of the apartheid homelands and the repressive policies that ruled then.)

Imagine! Mandela still considered a terrorist in the United States of Paranoia!

At any rate, back in 1990. now that he was free, a big celebration was being organized by concert producer Tony Hollingsworth. The concert was going to be shown worldwide by BBC (but, not, natch, by our networks) and some of the world's top musicians donated their time and talent. The show sold out in hours -- 90,000 tickets! Everyone was psyched but there was a problem that turned into a big fear.

At first it was just whispered about.

The event had been announced but Mandela himself had not confirmed. He had not yet agreed to come. And there was confusion about who was speaking for him or even with him. The ANC had become part of a larger Mandela Reception Committee to build support for his release from prison. Apparently, there was a power struggle underway as their often is among the activists vying to play a key role and have special access to a man of power.

Many wanted his blessing as if he was their Pope. Their power was the power of a courtesan in the Castle, deciding who could see the King. Frankly, some resented an independent non-political professional show producer, maybe because he was white, maybe because he was not reporting to them. Many were talking out of all sides of their mouths. One spokesman said one thing; another contradicted him. You might say trust had broken down. Where one expected clarity, there was confusion.

And that 's when I got the call from Tony who I knew and respected

"You have been with Mandela," he told me. "You know all the players. As an American, who doesn't have a political agenda, perhaps you get to him and get him to confirm otherwise, we will lose millions of pounds and our credibility. How can we celebrate his release without him? He's the star people want to see."

What a messy situation, but if I accepted, I was putting myself in the middle of possible faction fights with no guarantee of success. I wanted to help... but I knew I had to real leverage except a good rap and good intentions.

I was flattered to be asked but there was a problem. Make that many problems.

Mandela was globe-trotting, heading to Sweden to reunite with Oliver Tambo, his former law partner and the real head of the ANC through the long years of exile. Tambo had had a stroke and was in Stockholm convalescing. Sweden has been the ANC's biggest backer outside of Socialist bloc and Mandela had a duty to go there and thank them.

A rock concert was hardly uppermost in his mind, and some of his aides though that was trivial when he had so much to do to get negotiations started in an environment that was increasingly uncertain and violent in South Africa. His race for the Presidency there was still four years off.

They were non-committal.

Tony was getting desperate.

"Go to Sweden and see what you can do," he told me.

Go to Sweden? Me? You have to be kidding.

Soon, I was off to, where else, Sweden, somehow working my way on to the plane carrying Mandela. In the same way that Africa was hot and Sweden cold, I alternated between currents of anticipation and impending failure. Would anyone be open to my feeble entreaties amidst all the chaos and consternation?

When we landed at Arlanda airport, he was welcomed by dozens of South African exiles who live there joyfully singing freedom songs and doing the toi-toi dance. This was a moment they waited years for. There were smatterings of Swedish and Zulu.

"Viva" was the shout de jure.

Mandela was quickly surrounded with new layers of security. I couldn't get close. As soon as he was on the ground, he was whisked away to see Tambo. I was stuck on a bus with the rest of the entourage.

I was the only one there talking about Wembley. It wasn't high on anyone's agenda. But I keep hyping it even as I had fears that it would be seen as anti-climatic after the clamor about the big release, and then his reunion in Sweden.

I had been covering the tour. Now I was an emissary from music gods. For many, it was only rock and roll. Or was it?

Music had always been part of my life. I spent a decade news dissecting at the "rock of Boston," WBCN. I did profiles of my rock heroes, Dylan, Tina, Bruce et. al., when I was with ABC's 20/20.

I believe in the power of popular culture to do what journalism seems to be failing to do -- inform and inspire. Sun City had been a big success as a political awareness project. (These days I am working on another musical initiative with my pal Polar Levine/Polarity 1 -- remakes of the song "Home Sweet Home" to call attention to the foreclosure crisis. Check out our temporary website in progress. Polar did much of the great music for my In Debt We Trust film. )

Since many ANC leaders had spent years in London after fleeing South Africa in the bad old days, they knew how great it could be if Mandela was seen worldwide being cheered by a packed stadium. They kept telling me it the event would be considered.

That was not reassuring to Tony who was quietly freaking out. He wanted a yes, not a maybe.

Frankly, I didn't know if I was making any headway. I was hardly an insider in his entourage, but I persisted. He was then the biggest celebrity in the world, so the names of all the big stars who would show paled in comparison. They were underwhelmed.

In the end, perhaps in small part because of my whining and lobbying, Mandela agreed. He came to the show in the packed venue with his then wife Winnie Mandela. The place exploded with the sense that history had arrived. They were cheered and cheered as they held up their fists to the crowd. The decibel level was deafening.

The show was amazing, dynamic and exciting -- just to use a few cliches -- but the spectacle of a political rally posing as a rock concert was even more exhilarating. Finally, popular culture was aligned with the values of a freedom struggle in an unmistakeable way! This was the fruition of all the years of protests and songs and sacrifices.

Mandela was free -- and there we were in his presence!

What more could you ask for? I was with all the big rock stars behind the scenes. They were like children, reverting to being mere fans as they lined up to meet him and bask in his aura.

Our South Africa Now program did behind the scenes interviews and showed clips on our program, the only real coverage in our free press.. Once again, most of American TV ignored it and remained out of step with the world.

So happy Birthday Madiba and, I guess to me too. I am proud to have done my bit as an unlikely intermediary, and pleased that South Africa's internationally know producer Anant Singh just brought me back to Johannesburg or Jozie as its now called where we first met in 1994. I was heading back to help with his latest tribute to Madiba. The country has announced they will be marking his 90th for the next year.

But, true to form, Anant was not waiting to welcome me to his "beloved country."

He had jetted off to London. He had scored tix to THE show, now in Hyde Park.

I am sure he will tell me about it. Already there have been reports that the man who won his freedom through protest was going to be protested -- by campaigners demanding that he speak out against Mugabe's oppressive rule in Zimbabwe. (I actually traveled to Zimbabwe with Mandela and met Mugabe, but that's another story.)

Another sign of the times. One of the featured acts at this concert is the Children of Agape, a choir of orphans who lost their parents to HIV and Aids. That is an issue Mandela has spoken out on many times.

Nelson Mandela has moved on from the past to the present to the future. He is still campaigning for human rights, speaking out most recently against the Burmese junta and perhaps soon, as some in the ANC are now doing, against Mugabe. He is challenging us to care about Aids, and the condition of the world's children.

He has gone from insurgent to inmate to icon to inspiration. What a journey to learn from and that means recognizing its contradictions and failures as well as its successes.

The sun is rising over Africa again after a cold night here in Egoli, the city of Gold. I have been here many times, and never thought I would be back. And yet here I am again, back with old friends and passions that stay alive in my memory and work.

Danny Schechter is blogger-in chief--of His latestbook, Plunder will be out soon. See Comments to

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