By Peter Elman - Copyright Tribute Inspirations Limited

In a small coffee bar on Piccadilly, near St James’s Church, three men met on a cold morning in December 1989 to begin making secret preparations for a landmark pop-music global broadcast event at an unknown date sometime in the next few months.  The event was to be the official international reception for the black South African leader Nelson Mandela, whose release from 27 years in prison was thought to be imminent.

Ismail Ayob, Mandela’s lawyer, asked the British producer and impresario Tony Hollingsworth if he would put on such an event.  But, he added, there would be three key conditions.  First, Mandela must be allowed to speak as long as he liked.  Second, his speech was not to be edited on television.  Third, the widest possible international television coverage must be sought – with television fees and concert ticket prices geared to the event merely breaking even rather than making a profit.

Mandela, according to Ayob, would not use his speech to celebrate his release but to tell the world that there was still a need to push for other political detainees to be released and for an end to apartheid.  The meeting would also be an “official reception” because Mandela would be greeted and introduced by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, a former priest in South Africa who had long campaigned against apartheid and was now president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London.

Tony Hollingsworthreadily agreed.  He had conceived, risk-funded and produced a landmark global broadcast event at Wembley Stadium in June 1988, which not only filled the stadium but was televised by 67 broadcasters around the world to an audience of 600 million people.  Mandela, his party (the African National Congress) and the Anti-Apartheid Movement were convinced that that event – a musical tribute to Mandela close to his 70th birthday, had played an important role in increasing pressure on the South African regime to release Mandela.

By the end of 1989, there was talk in the Press that negotiations for Mandela’s release were taking place, and ANC officials were increasingly confident that the release would come relatively soon.  So the Piccadilly meeting was convened by the third man at the meeting, the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s executive secretary Mike Terry.

Having laid down the conditions, Ayob warned Tony Hollingsworth that, even with Mandela’s release, nothing that he had said at the meeting was for certain.  Mandela, as a democrat, would not commit himself until he had got the approval of the ANC and that could happen only after it had met, once Mandela was released.

Even assuming that the ANC would back the event, Tony Hollingsworth knew that it would be difficult to organise an event in the likely available time.  The global broadcast event did not need to take place immediately after the release, but it could not be too long after.  So he had to go ahead making contingency plans.  He booked three alternative dates for Wembley Stadium, in April, in June and in October 1990.  He could not tell the stadium management what the event would be, but “they knew what I had done before and they probably had a suspicion”.

He also approached a number of musicians about participating: all were interested, though most wanted to know the date.  Peter Gabriel, who had sung his Biko protest song at the Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute to the huge appreciation of the crowd, was “absolute about his participation, even without asking about the date,” says Hollingsworth.

Mandela was released on February 11 1990 and three days later the ANC met and agreed that Mandela should go to Wembley.  Huddleston told Hollingsworth the next morning and the producer later that day flew to Los Angeles to book artists.

Hollingsworth quickly agreed the date, Monday April 16, with Mandela’s team and Wembley very quickly put the tickets on sale.  Hollingsworth laid down that they would not be sold through ticket agencies but directly to individuals, and no more than four per person.  All 74,000 were sold in 36 hours.

Mandela changes his mind

A short while after the ANC meeting, Mandela went to a meeting in Sweden, a country that had opposed the South African government and where Oliver Tambo, the leader of the African National Congress, was convalescing after a serious stroke.  Several leading figures from the African continent were there – several of whom lobbied Mandela that he should not be holding his “official reception” in “Thatcher’s Country”: Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, supported the South African government and had refused to back sanctions.  They said that the event should be held in Africa or in Paris, which had also backed the fight against apartheid.  Mandela accepted the argument.

By that time, Hollingsworth had not only sold out Wembley but had got the agreement of many top artists and had sold the rights to well over 50 broadcasters.

Mike Terry phoned Hollingsworth from Sweden.  His message was blunt, though preceded by “I don’t know how you tell you this but….”

“I was flabbergasted,” said Hollingsworth.

“What does it mean for you?” asked Terry.

“I’ve lost everything – financially and probably my reputation.  And, more important, Mandela is going back on his word to broadcasters and a major, major group of artists.  That’s very bad news.”

Terry said that he would tell Archbishop Huddleston what Hollingsworth had said.  Huddleston was due to have breakfast with Mandela the next morning.

Huddleston, according to Hollingsworth, told Mandela the repercussions of his withdrawal from Wembley: “Nelson, you gave me your word and I gave my word to Tony, and everything was arranged on the basis of that trust.  If you don’t come, I will resign as president of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.”

“I did say I will come,” replied Mandela.  “So therefore I will come.”

The threat, says Hollingsworth, was a big thing for Huddleston to make.  He was very important emotionally in South Africa where, before Mandela was imprisoned, he had frequently addressed rallies from the back of a lorry, the last to speak after Mandela had delivered his speech.

The event took place on Monday April 16 – with a Wembley audience of 74,000 and a worldwide television audience of around 500 million.  Major broadcasters in 61 countries bought the rights – but it is likely that another 54 countries in Africa made use of a free licence.  The event lasted four-and-a-half hours, starting late afternoon.  Although Hollingsworth had been asked to organise an event before it was known when Mandela would be released, the event took place only 54 days after Mandela became a free man and 50 days after the official go-ahead.

UStelevision did not show the event.  American concert promoter Bill Graham tried to put on his own reception for Mandela a few weeks later, but failed – though not without splitting the artists about which event they would attend.  The prospect of the US event led the US networks to ignore the Wembley event.  Two years earlier, the US television network Fox cut out most of the political content from the Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute organised by Hollingsworth.

The 1990 event was geared to reach as large a worldwide audience as possible, to break even rather than make a profit.  But it ended up making a profit of £100,000 which went to the same seven charities benefiting from the 70th Birthday Tribute.

Tight security

The event was held under very tight security because Mandela was still regarded as an assassination target.  The Metropolitan Police Special Branch, which used sniffer dogs at the stadium before and during the concert, insisted that they and Hollingsworth would decide when Mandela would speak and that only Hollingsworth, accompanied by Special Branch officers, would go to Mandela’s private reception rooms, behind the stage and beneath the stands, to tell Mandela that he was due to go on stage.  Special Branch and Hollingsworth also agreed that, for security reasons, broadcasters would not be given advance notice of when Mandela would speak.  “That was a benefit to me,” says Hollingsworth, “because the broadcasters wouldn’t be able to make plans to edit the speech.”

But Hollingsworth also wanted to show the audience, particularly the television audience, early on that Mandela was in the stadium – thereby heightening the anticipation and keeping the audience tuned in.  So, with Special Branch’s approval, he arranged for Mandela and his then-wife Winnie to appear high up in the stands to the right of the stage, with an artist on the stage pointing towards Mandela and the lights and cameras turned on the South African.

Mandela waved, to huge applause, and was then swiftly hurried away to his private rooms with his entourage, including Archbishop Huddleston who was to introduce him on stage.  They were by no means in seclusion, with a string of politicians being allowed in to meet Mandela.

Relief – but no security

Special Branch and Hollingsworth agreed a time in mid-evening when Mandela should speak and, when the time came, went to fetch the African leader.  He will be led on stage with Huddleston, Winnie, Adelaide Tambo (the wife of Oliver who is still too ill to attend) and Mendhi Msimang (the ANC representative in London and the legal clerk at Mandela and Tambo’s practice before Mandela was jailed).

Mandela and Huddleston were, according to Hollingsworth, sitting with a number of other people, “two old men, wearing suits with M&S v-necked sweaters underneath, waiting to go outside into a cold, snowy April evening, but totally oblivious to the noise outside.

“I asked them ‘Are you ready?’


“‘Do either of you need to go to the toilet?’  It’s something you always have to remember to ask artists before they go on stage.”

“Neither did, so we got up and walked out of the room with their entourage and Special Branch, with Mandela and I at the back.  We moved towards the top of the steep staircase that led down towards the stage.  Mandela tagged my arm and said ‘I do’.  So, instead of going down the stairs, we turned down the corridor to the right and I took him to the toilet.

“When we came out, we found that everyone else, including the Special Branch, had gone down the stairs and through the door which was now locked.  We were locked in.  I had no idea what to do, but we walked around the corridor – still in the private area – until we found a door with a glass top.  I could make out a woman inside, counting money.  I knocked hard and she opened the door, very apprehensive and somewhat startled when she recognised whom I was with.  Once in, we could go out through another door into a public corridor.  We walked along the corridor and down the public steps and then found our way to the back-stage area.

“Luckily, all the audience had their eyes on the stage, no one saw us brushing past them.  And when we got to the stage area, no one had realised we had been missing.  The Special Branch had had their eyes on the audience around them, they had no idea that the object of their security was no longer being protected.  I don’t think it worried Mandela.”

Mandela’s speech

Mandela walked on stage, with Huddleston, Winnie, Adelaide Tambo and Mendhi.  The applause was thunderous.  The tape of the show records the standing ovation lasting eight minutes.  At one stage, the crowd started to sing.  “If you listen to the tape carefully,” says Hollingsworth, “you can hear Mandela ask ‘What are they singing?’  It sounds like Winnie who replies: ‘I think it’s a football song’.  It was, in fact, You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Once the singing and applause had subsided, Mandela started talking, with words that could have come out of a 1990s book on public speaking.  He flattered the audience several times, saying among other things: “Thank you that you chose to care, because you could have decided otherwise.”

He stressed that only a few people had been released from South Africa’s apartheid prisons and that there was a need to push for the release of the rest.  There was also a need to press for the abolition of the apartheid system itself and “the transformation of our country into a non-racial democracy”.  The struggle for international sanctions was also very important:  “All of us must therefore refuse to be de-mobilised, even if those who seek to de-mobilise us plead that they are doing so out of a new-found concern for the oppressed and out of the goodness of their hearts.”  He called also for the public to help generate the means to help “enable us to reconstruct the ANC after 30 years of illegality.”

The speech had got off to a perfect start, says Hollingsworth, but the rest of it was much as he had feared.  It lasted for more than 30 minutes, “slowly delivered, deliberate, theatrical, ponderous.  It was delivered in the same style he would have used 27 years earlier, talking to a rally from the back of the lorry.  It was not written or spoken in a way that by this time was right for a microphone in addressing a big audience, let alone an international television audience.”  In any case, “long political speeches are not the kind of thing that tend to work in entertainment, even one that is cause-related.  Audiences, particularly viewers, switch off.”

Hollingsworth saw footage of Mandela giving a speech soon after his release from prison and was extremely worried that his old-fashioned style would put off an international television audience.  He immediately contacted a friend in New York, Danny Schechter, a film-maker and television producer who had founded and executive-produced the highly-regarded South Africa Now series on US television.  He commissioned Schechter, who had done a lot of work for the anti-apartheid movement and was well-respected by the ANC, to go to South Africa to persuade Mandela to change his speaking style for a modern audience – the way it would be written and the way it would be given.  But he never got to see Mandela, despite following him from South Africa to Sweden.

Schechter wrote an article for the Huffington Post current-affairs website (June 26 2008) about his experiences chasing Mandela on behalf of Hollingsworth.  But the story, says Hollingsworth, wasn’t true.  Schechter wrote that his mission was to persuade Mandela to confirm that he would appear at the Wembley international reception.

“A rock concert was hardly uppermost in his mind,” he wrote, “…when he had so much to do to get negotiations started in an environment that was increasingly uncertain and violent in South Africa…”  Finally, he writes: “In the end, perhaps in small part because of my whining and lobbying, Mandela agreed.”

It may be that Schechter’s commission to persuade Mandela to undergo some media training overlapped with Mandela’s short-term withdrawal from the forthcoming Wembley event.  But his story was, says Hollingsworth, little more than an amusing piece of fiction.

Schechter, however, was in no doubt about the global broadcast event itself.  “The place exploded with the sense that history had arrived.  They [Mandela and Winnie] 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 clich├ęs – 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.”

What they said about the Mandela events

Quoteby Mike Terry, Executive Secretary, Anti-Apartheid Movement, in a letter of January 18 2003: Before the first event, the prospect of Nelson Mandela's imminent release from prison seemed completely unrealistic.  Yet within 20 months he walked free and I have no doubt that the first event played a decisive role in making this happen.  This was implicitly acknowledged by Nelson Mandela, himself, by his decision to participate in the second event.

Quoteby Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, President of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, in a letter of July 12 1995: The result of his [Hollingsworth’s] efforts helped to generate the pressures which secured the release of Nelson Mandela.

Quoteby the African National Congress, in a message on its website and in the programme for the International Tribute for a Free South Africa: ...the worldwide campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela and political prisoners made a decisive contribution...One event in particular symbolised that campaign - the ‘Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute’...The ANC owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the artists and performers and all those who made that event possible...

Quoteby Nelson Mandela at the Nelson Mandela Tribute for a Free South Africa, April 16 1990: I would like to take advantage of this occasion to extend our special thanks to the artistes of the world who have, for many years, lent their talents to the common effort to end the apartheid system.  We thank you especially for what you did to mark our 70th birthday.  What you did then made it possible for us all to do what we are doing here today.

Artists appearing at the Nelson Mandela: International Tribute
for a Free South Africa event

Anita Baker

Ben Elton

Bonnie Raitt

Caiphus Semenya

Chrissie Hynde

Daniel Lanois

Denzel Washington

Dudu Pukwana

Geoffrey Oreyama

George Duke

Jackson Browne

Jerry Dammers

Johnny Clegg

Jonas Gwangwa

Jungle Brothers

Lenny Henry

Letta Mbulla

Lou Reed


Mica Paris

Natalie Cole

Neil Young

Neneh Cherry

Neville Brothers

Patti Labelle

Peter Gabriel


Simple Minds


Steven Van Zandt (Little Steven)

Terence Trent D’Arby

Tracy Chapman

Youssou N’Dour

Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa - Wikipedia link