The music of Mandela and freedom

Published: Sunday | December 15, 2013 Comments 0

Gordon Robinson, Contributor

Nelson Mandela, the world's greatest living humanitarian, finally received his divine reward on December 5, 2013.

No longer of this mortal toil, he journeyed across the pale to eternal rejoinder with God where he wasn't greeted as 'Nelson', the English name given to him at nine years old by a Methodist primary-school teacher in Qunu, South Africa (all schoolchildren were given 'English' Christian names foreigners would find easier to pronounce); not as 'Rolihlahla', his correct Xhosa birth name whose literal meaning is 'pulling the branch of a tree', but has the colloquial meaning 'troublemaker' (prophecy?); nor was he greeted as 'Madiba', his clan name as Father of The Nation.

None of those names seemed appropriate anymore.

As he joined together with his heavenly Father for all eternity, he was greeted by the name most closely associated with his life's work and his current being. God simply said, "Welcome, Freedom."

Nelson Mandela's life was all about freedom. He fought for black South Africans' freedom from apartheid (pronounced 'Apart hate'), but more than that, he fought for black South Africans' freedom from hate. He fought for white South Africans to remain a vital part of the nation. He fought for all South Africans' freedom from fear; fear of each other; fear of the past; fear of the future. He fought for a colour-blind South Africa. In his grandchildren's generation, he succeeded.

In this effort and gradual success, he surpassed another great 20th-century humanitarian, Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi succeeded in driving the British out of India, but his ultimate dream, for which he lived and died, was for a united India with Muslims and Hindus sharing one country in peace and harmony. The dream crashed and burned and he was assassinated for these ideals of religious tolerance. The Muslims broke away and formed their own nation, Pakistan. So far, Mandela's work has prevented this from happening in South Africa.

Freeing oppressed people

But it's a little-known fact about Mandela and his life work that he recognised at an early stage how important sport and culture could be in freeing an oppressed people and then uniting a nation. Much has been said about his being a boxer in his youth, but he wrote in his autobiography:

"I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one's body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match.

"Boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, colour and wealth are irrelevant ... . I never did any real fighting after I entered politics. My main interest was in training; I found the rigorous exercise to be an excellent outlet for tension and stress. After a strenuous workout, I felt both mentally and physically lighter."

He famously said (in Monaco in 2000): "Sport has the power to change the world," and he put his money where his mouth was during the 1995 Rugby World Cup on which Mandela spent much of his political capital with South African blacks by refusing to allow his government to ban the springbok logo for the rugby team despite it being one of the most appalling symbols of apartheid-era oppression.

The South African rugby team wasn't among the favourites for the Cup. They weren't even expected to survive the first round of games. However, Mandela made a huge personal contribution, which included befriending the white team captain and literally willing the team to win the Cup.

The seminal scene of the first black president of South Africa presenting the World Cup to the white rugby team captain, whose position and emblem he had defended against his own African National Congress (ANC) party wishes, in one fell swoop convinced all of South Africa that this man was serious. It became obvious that he wasn't a black president. He was a South African president. Once again he had used sport to teach egalitarianism - the lesson he learned from boxing as a young man.

But it's another little-known fact that Mandela also recognised the power of music and used it throughout his life and struggles to achieve his objectives. He said: "Music is a great blessing. It has the power to elevate and liberate us. It sets people free to dream. It can unite us to sing with one voice. Such is the value of music."

His 27 years in prison was an inspiration to musicians all over the world, and his vision was kept alive by music. The prison walls would reverberate with nightly singing by Mandela and his fellow inmates. Meanwhile, Mandela's legend grew through freedom songs written everywhere.

Sidebar: People ask me if I look up the lyrics of the songs I quote. Almost never. I can remember every lyric of every song I heard 50 years ago. I can't remember what I did this morning. If I have a temporary memory block, I simply reach for the record from my extensive vinyl collection and play it. However, I confess that, for the first time (at last), I've been forced to look up the lyrics of a song.

Nkosi Sikeleli Africa

Malup hakanyiswu phondolwayo

Yiswa imithanda zo yethu

Nkosi Sikelela

Thina lusapolwayo.

There's more. Like me, you might need help with some of the lyrics, but nobody who lived during the 1960s and '70s while Mandela was fighting for a free South Africa and then incarcerated will ever forget this song, originally composed (in Xhosa) as a hymn in 1897 by Enoch Sontonga, a teacher at a Methodist mission school in Johannesburg. We hummed along and sang the chorus lustily. The song's title literally translates to Lord Bless Africa or God Bless Africa.

It was the anthem of the pan-African struggle as well as the ANC's struggle against apartheid. In various adaptations, including some parts English, it was adopted as the national anthem of five African nations and is still, since 1994, a part of the South African national anthem. Mandela, in his drive to create a colour-blind South Africa, insisted on retaining the former national anthem, sung in Afrikaans and in English, as a part of the new mixed national anthem of the new South Africa.

Recording projects

Other songs, like Nangu Mandela by the legendary Miriam Makeba and Bring Back Nelson Mandela by Hugh Masekela, were rallying cries for the ANC. Hugh Masekela tells the story of his inspiration for the hugely successful song. After many years in prison, Mandela, one of the Masekela's biggest fans, wrote a letter to Masekela in April 1985 (for Masekela's birthday) and smuggled it out of Pollsmoor Prison to get to Masekela for the big day.

The letter congratulated Masekela on his career so far, wished him luck on his recording projects and encouraged him to keep up the good work. Masekela was so moved by the fact that a man who had suffered and was still suffering as Mandela could find the time to write to him with encouragement, he was inspired to put pen to paper.

Bring back Nelson Mandela.

Bring him back home to


I want to see him walking

down the streets of South Africa - tomorrow!

Bring back Nelson Mandela.

Bring him back home to


I want to see him walking hand in hand

with Winnie Mandela.

Bring Back Nelson Mandela became another anthem for the ANC in its struggle against apartheid.

We can never forget how proud we felt, as Jamaicans, when our island led the international fight for Mandela's freedom and against apartheid. Some of the best freedom music of the time came from little Jamaica. I don't have to tell you that Burning Spear was a leader of this musical movement:

Free Nelson Mandela

Free Nelson Mandela

Man must be free (will be free).

Man must be free (will be free).

Free Nelson Mandela.

And if they should talk about kill him

what a revolution

Free Nelson Mandela.

Free Nelson Mandela.

Sugar Minott reversed the Masekela experience and wrote A Letter to Nelson Mandela (signed 'Yours Truly, Lincoln 'Sugar' Minott'):

Dear Mr Mandela

I thought you are a jolly good fella.

It's plain to see

you're a true born African leader.

Yes, Mr Mandela

you know that we wish you do well.

Your freedom is a must

Only time will tell way down there (down there)

way down there inna Africa (way down there).

As the pressure grew, international stars threw concerts in support of Mandela's freedom. British ska band The Specials' 1984 hit protest song Free Nelson Mandela reached number nine in the UK charts. Fans smuggled it into South Africa where it was banned from airplay but enjoyed extensive play among the oppressed. This was a feature of the times. Banned music was smuggled into South Africa on cassette or beamed in on illegal shortwave radio, while exiled nationals like Makeba and Masekela carried the message throughout the world.

In 1988, a worldwide TV audience of 600 million watched a live broadcast of Mandela's 70th birthday tribute concert at London's Wembley Stadium, featuring the likes of Sting and George Michael.

In 1985, Senegalese composer/singer/songwriter Youssou N'Dour organised a major concert at Dakar's Stade de l'Amitiť to demand Mandela's liberation. He included a song to the prisoner on his next album, named in honour of Mandela. His was the approach of a teacher: "In Senegal, most people have never been to school. They needed someone to inform them and give them a new image of what's going on down there ... ," he explained.

Prisoner No. 46664 on Robben Island inspired Congolese singer Papa Wemba to write Esclave, and rumba king, Tabu Ley Rochereau, to write Sisi Mandela for his singer-partner Mbilia Bel. In Cameroon, Toto Guillaume included the slogan 'Free Nelson Mandela' on his track Wake Up Africa, while in Madagascar, Rossy composed Papa Mandela.

The strategy of apartheid was to make Mandela disappear. The power of music and its simple message defeated that strategy. It was music that raised the global consciousness against the atrocities taking place in South Africa. Most of us found out about Mandela and the plight of the South African people by listening to the music.


Peace and love.

Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to

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