By Mike Ketchum

The Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert, held on June 11th 1988 in Wembley Stadium in London, was watched not only by a capacity audience of 72,000 but also on television, by close on a billion people in over 60 countries of the world. The writer of this article, a worker for the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, helped to organise the event.

During the ten hours of the Mandela Birthday Concert, the attention of the world was focused, as perhaps never so powerfully before, on the evils of the apartheid regime, and, more especially, on the continued imprisonment of the acknowledged leader of the South African majority, and the thousands of other prisoners who languish in the gaols of Namibia and South Africa.

What an event it was - what a feast! From midday until ten in the evening, some of the greatest entertainers of the world gave themselves in praise of Nelson Mandela and what he stands for. In the dazzling, nonstop parade were jazz, rock and traditional groups; singers, instrumentalists, dancers, actors, comedians, from Europe, North America and Africa - indeed, there were famous jazz veterans and newer groups from South Africa itself. An American operatic soprano ended the programme.*

The origins of the concert dated back two years, to 1986, with the formation in Britain of Artists Against Apartheid. The organisers, Jerry Dammers and Dali Tambo, invited a host of artists to take part in a Freedom Festival on Clapham Common, in London. The march to Clapham Common before the concert was supported by 100,000 people representing almost all sections of British society. At the height of the afternoon, 250,000 were gathered on the great green Common to listen to the artists express their solidarity with the people of Namibia and South Africa through their words and music, and to hear the representatives of the ANC, of SWAPO and of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement.

The Freedom Festival took place shortly after the state of emergency was imposed in South Africa. It was a new high point in mobilising public opinion in Britain. In spite of this, it was not a financial success. The Anti-Apartheid Movement, always short of funds, lost 80 000, was saved from bankruptcy only by an emergency appeal, and was therefore hampered at a time when maximum activity was required.

Towards a Big Event

Artists Against Apartheid followed up the artistic success of the Freedom Festival by organising a series of smaller benefit concerts, which raised money for the ANC, SWAPO, and the AAM; but it was clear that a bigger event was the only immediate answer to the increasing financial demands of the situation. After we had realised that, events moved inexorably forward.

We enquired about the availability of Wembley Stadium. We sought the cooperation of a professional producer, Tony Hollingsworth, who had previously worked with Artists Against Apartheid, as well as with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Amnesty International, and asked him to be involved. We approached artists. The breakthrough came late in 1987, when Simple Minds committed themselves.

The idea behind the event was that money would be raised for the campaigning of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and for a range of agencies which give practical help to the children of Southern Africa, who are suffering from the outrages of apartheid. The budgets were prepared, and a surplus of half a million pounds looked likely.

We decided that the political emphasis of the concert should be on the issue of Nelson Mandela and other South African and Namibian political prisoners. We were able to make a firm booking for Wembley Stadium on June 11th 1988, and started planning a campaign. The Mandela Freedom At 70 Campaign eventually turned out to be the largest the British Anti-Apartheid Movement had ever organised.

Television Coverage

BBC Television expressed interest in televising the whole event live on BBC2, and the prospect of world-wide TV coverage opened up. The political benefits of such media attention were tremendous.

Of course, the BBC was denounced by the extreme right. There were threats of an injunction to stop the coverage. Attempts were made to forbid any of the performers' making 'political statements.' Sections of the British press mounted a campaign of lies about the purposes of the concert. But broad support for the release of South African and Namibian political prisoners prevented the success of any of this. The Botha regime was clearly worried.

Its concern was justified. The excitement generated by the concert led to a heightening of political consciousness.

Membership of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement doubled in little more than a month. The name of Nelson Mandela is now better known in Britain than those of many British politicians. A Gallup poll in July showed that 70 per cent of British people support the call for Mandela's release, and 58 per cent think the British government should do more to help secure it. The Freedom March, culminating in the demonstration in London, was warmly received throughout the length of the country. Thousands of people have become actively involved in the struggle for the first time.

The funds from the concert made possible the mounting of the great campaign that followed it. The money raised will enable the Anti-Apartheid Movement to pay off its accumulated debts, and allow it to continue its campaigning at a high level. But the concert did much more than raise money. Cultural workers have unique access to the media and to people's attention. In Britain, where many people regard politicians with contempt and cynicism, popular artists may be the only group able to command such attention.

Young people in particular have got to know about the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Many of those present in the stadium on June 11th may have come in the first place to hear their favourite artists. Nobody will have left unmoved as artist after artist paid tribute to the bravery of Nelson Mandela and all the other people in South Africa and Namibia who struggle for a democratic non-racial society. They, and those who watched on television throughout the world, will support that struggle, and take up the call:

Free Mandela!
Free Nantibia!
Free South Africa!
Sanctions Now!

* Penguin Books, London, have published an A4 size Nelson Mandela Concert Book, with messages from Winnie Mandela and Trievor Huddleston, a foreword by Mary Benson, and many colour photographs. Part of the proceeds go to the Anti-Apartheid Movement, and part to agencies concerned with relief work for those in Southern Africa who suffer the attacks of the racist regime.