One humanity, one justice: Remembering Wembley 1988, on Mandela’s 95th

Nelson Mandela, Mark Knopfler, Tony Hollingsworth

A grab of Mark Knopfler’s ‘one-humanity-one-justice’ moment, at the historic tribute concert in London to mark Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday

It’s hard not to get emotional as one listens, 25 years on, to Mark Knopfler, playing Wembley that June. It was the concert that finally persuaded the world’s leading broadcasters to stop using the word “terrorist” to describe Nelson Mandela. (And arguably, for Mr Mandela to be released from 27-years in prison 18 months later.)

With the global hype that now attends everything to do with Mr Mandela – the South African Gandhi, Nobel laureate, icon of humility and forgiveness – it is hard to remember how it used to be back in 1988. Then, as promoter and campaigner Tony Hollingsworth, has just been recounting to the BBC’s James Coomarasamy, the great man was a “terrorist”, an outlaw.

(It’s worth remembering that Mr Mandela was on a US terror watch list until very recently.)

Anyway, as Mr Hollingsworth tells it, back in 1988, it was seen as all but impossible to change the wording and the image in the public’s mind, and by extension, persuade governments to be more receptive to the African National Congress’s aims.

Mr Hollingsworth has told the story before – to AFP actually, back in June – but it was moving still to hear him today, Mr Mandela’s 95th birthday. He described the big turnaround moment for Mr Mandela, the ANC and the anti-apartheid campaign.

It was a stroke of pure genius and only someone as gifted at cultural cross-communications as Mr Hollingsworth could have thought it up and pulled it off. Billed as a tribute to Mr Mandela on his 70th birthday, the concert occurred in June, more than a month before the actual date. (Not many noticed!)

Mr Hollingsworth got Knopfler of Dire Straits to agree to perform and then, convinced Simple Minds, Sting, George Michael, The Eurythmics, Eric Clapton, Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder to join the 83-artist line up.

He signed contracts with the entertainment departments of disparate television stations and that, says Mr Hollingsworth, became the point at which the tide turned. “…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 Wembley concert became, as a rather hagiographical but accurat sketch on Mr Hollingsworth’s website says, one of “two landmark global broadcast events for Nelson Mandela, the first calling for his release from an apartheid prison, the second celebrating it.”

Knopfler, Mr Hollingsworth recounted to the BBC, “had a frog in his throat” as he made the poetic statement “one humanity, one justice”, before launching into ‘Brothers in Arms’.

It’s curiously moving to see and hear Knopfler, (very different from today, with a receding hairline but lots more hair) salute the “man in question” and celebrate his presence “at the best birthday party ever”.

(Thanks to blogger rogerc, of Shropshire, UK, for the link that allows one to relive the ‘one humanity, one justice’ moment.)