The world’s most famous political prisoner

How the UK-based Anti-Apartheid Movement made Mandela a household name and struck a blow at South African segregation.

nelson mandela
In 1988, about 600 million people watched a concert celebrating Mandela's 70th birthday [GALLO/GETTY]

Peter Hain can still recall vividly the morning in 1972 when South African secret agents intended to kill him with a letter bomb sent to his home in London.

“Suddenly, in the middle of the family breakfast table was this terrifying, grotesque mixture of terminals and wires,” Hain told Al Jazeera. “We just sat there transfixed, and nothing happened. The police said we had been very lucky because there was a problem with the trigger mechanism.”

Hain, whose family had left South Africa in the 1960s when he was a teenager, was by then one of the most recognisable faces of the UK-based Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM).

In 1969 he had launched the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign, which used direct action tactics to disrupt the Springboks’ rugby tour to the UK and ultimately forced the cancellation of the South African cricket team’s 1970 series in England.

Although the AAM had been founded in 1959, with the initial goal of promoting a boycott of South African products, the targeting of sports events succeeded in pushing apartheid into the wider public consciousness. “It was on the back pages as well as the front pages, and a lot of people are more interested in sport than politics,” said Hain. “It reached an audience that it had never done before, and the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s membership doubled overnight.”

But the campaign’s success also put Hain firmly in the sights of South Africa’s Bureau of State Security, known by the acronym BOSS. As well as the letter bomb and death threats, he was charged with criminal conspiracy in a trial instigated by South African agents and falsely accused of bank robbery. “I knew they were trying to disrupt what I was doing. They were doing a lot of that to everybody. They had infiltrated the Anti-Apartheid Movement and they were up to all sort of dirty tricks.”

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‘Historic responsibility’

For Hain and other exiles in London, who included Oliver Tambo, the president of the African National Congress (ANC), the UK was an obvious base for the Anti-Apartheid Movement, especially in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher’s government was one of South Africa’s closest allies.

“Britain bears a massive historic responsibility for apartheid which was there in all but name under British rule before it was formally institutionalised in 1948,” he said. “And it was essential, especially when you were fighting a government that basically was a fellow traveller with apartheid.”

The struggle in South Africa would touch British life in other ways. The armed wing of the ANC recruited left-wing students at the London School of Economics in the 1960s for missions such as detonating “leaflet bombs” and smuggling ANC literature into the country.

The ANC also forged links with the Irish Republican Army, which was fighting against British rule in Northern Ireland. “The IRA were really sophisticated urban guerrillas and fantastic bombmakers, and they sent trainers to Angola and used to train saboteurs,” Stephen Ellis, a professor of African history at VU University in the Netherlands, told Al Jazeera. “In retaliation the South African security services were supporting some of the loyalist militias in Northern Ireland.”

By the mid-1980s South Africa was becoming increasingly isolated, with the UN supporting sporting and cultural sanctions and many western companies spurred to withdraw from the country by the efforts of anti-apartheid campaigners.

But it was a concert that would eventually elevate Nelson Mandela to the status of the world’s most famous political prisoner and take the anti-apartheid cause in the UK and around the world to another level.

Links between music and politics were well established in the UK in the early 1980s through events such as the Rock Against Racism concerts, which aimed to counter the rise of the British far right.

One of the most influential figures in that scene was Jerry Dammers, whose band The Specials, featuring an ensemble of black and white musicians, had spearheaded the two-tone ska revival. In 1984, Dammers gave the anti-apartheid movement a surprising global hit record in the form of the bouncy and exuberant “Free Nelson Mandela”.

Inspired by the success of Dammers’ song, Tony Hollingsworth, a promoter who specialised in using musical events to promote political awareness, approached AAM with a view to organising a concert in London to celebrate Mandela’s 70th birthday in 1988.

“The Anti-Apartheid Movement had been very successful in getting people to pay attention to economic sanctions as a route of action. But in terms of communication, the apartheid regime was still winning in that 50 percent of news on television and radio reported Mandela as a black terrorist leader,” Hollingsworth told Al Jazeera.

Hollingsworth’s belief was that if broadcasters could be persuaded to screen the concert, drawn by the promise of performances from some of the biggest stars of the era such as Dire Straits, Whitney Houston, Sting and Stevie Wonder, their news divisions would soon cast Mandela in a different light.

“I knew we were winning as soon as we started. As soon as broadcasters signed up that word terrorist started disappearing from their news coverage, that was the magic of it,” he said.

An audience of 600 million

Eventually carried by 67 broadcasters worldwide, the concert was watched by 600 million people, though not entirely without controversy.

In Britain, members of the ruling Conservative Party proposed a motion in parliament criticising the BBC for carrying an event that “gave publicity to a movement that encourages the African National Congress in its terrorist activities”, while Fox’s coverage for a US audience was heavily censored.

But Hollingsworth believes the concert struck a massive publicity blow against the apartheid state at a time when it was already facing ever tightening political and economic pressure and growing resistance within South Africa.

“It gave the ANC and the Anti-Apartheid Movement the ammunition of saying 600 million people watched [Mandela’s] birthday. That was more than a fifth of the world’s population. That’s a big vote for getting him out and stopping apartheid.”

Just two years later, Hollingsworth was tasked with arranging another concert in London, this one attended by Mandela himself to celebrate his release and thank those who had supported his cause.

Over the next four years, Mandela would be the key figure in the dismantlement of the apartheid state and the rise in its place of a multi-racial and democratic South Africa.

“The end when it came almost seemed miraculous and quick,” said Hain, who by the late 1990s had become a pillar of the British establishment against which he had once railed, serving as a foreign office minister in Tony Blair’s government.

“But it was a bitter, hard fight and even those at the heart of it were never totally confident that we could win it. I always had a belief in the triumph of the human spirit over evil and tyranny, but the apartheid edifice at its height seemed impregnable and immovable.”

Source: Al Jazeera