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Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute

Submitted by angusm on Thu, 05/25/2017 - 20:51
Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute
By Peter Elman - Copyright Tribute Inspirations Limited

The Nelson Mandela 70th birthday tribute global broadcast event at Wembley Stadium on June 11 1988 was probably the most politically influential of any concert held in the UK.  It was also one of the biggest and most spectacular pop-musical events of all time.

The event, conceived, funded and organised by Tony Hollingsworth, not merely filled Wembley Stadium but was televised in at least 67 countries to an audience of 600 million people.  It raised worldwide consciousness about Mandela’s imprisonment by the South African apartheid regime and put pressure on it to release Mandela earlier than would otherwise have happened.

Eighteen months after the Wembley event, with his release now thought to be approaching, Mandela asked for Tony Hollingsworth to create a second event that would be an official international reception at which the future leader, after 27 years in prison, would address the world.

The second event, Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa, was, like the first, conceived to be shown on television across the world and was broadcast from Wembley Stadium to 61 countries and a 500 million audience on April 16 1990 – 54 days after his release.  Like the first event, Wembley was filled to its 74,000 capacity.

The first event, according to Robin Denselow, music critic and presenter of the BBC broadcast, writing in 1989, was the “biggest and most spectacular pop-political event of all time, a more political version of Live Aid with the aim of raising consciousness rather than just money.”  The audience was the largest-ever for a television entertainment programme.

By the time of the Mandela birthday tribute, Tony Hollingsworth had a good record of putting on concerts and festivals on behalf of a cause.  He had produced several events for the Greater London Council, including two highly-regarded Jobs for a Changefestivals, a number of smaller concerts for the unemployed and also African and Indian shows that filled the Albert Hall and Royal Festival Hall.  He had been the manager of the Glastonbury CND festival for seven years and produced the four-day show of Amnesty’s The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball

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 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.

How the idea for the Mandela tribute was developed

Tony Hollingsworthdeveloped the idea for the first Mandela global broadcast event after talking to singer Jerry Dammers of The Specials ska band, who had written the song Free Nelson Mandela in 1984 and founded the Artists Against Apartheid organisation the following year.  In early 1986, Hollingsworth contacted Dammers to say that the Greater London Council, where he was a consultant, might be able to fund the AAA. The authority was due to be abolished at the end of March and had spare cash to give away. The idea, however, came to nothing.  The GLC could provide a grant only to a legal entity and Dammers had no interest in making the AAA one.

So, Hollingsworth told him “if you can find a big name, give me a ring and I’ll see if I can put on an anti-apartheid festival.”

Jerry Dammers phoned back 16 months later, in June 1987.  “He was in fits of laughter,” says Hollingsworth, “because Simple Minds whom he’d asked to perform at a concert a year earlier had finally responded.  We agreed to go to Edinburgh, where Simple Minds were based, to talk about them appearing at a new event.

“Jerry had in mind a concert on Clapham Common as in the summer of 1986 he had organised a free anti-apartheid concert, Freedom Beat, in London's Clapham Common attended by 200,000 people.

“I was already beginning to develop something much bigger.  I knew Mandela would be 70 the following year, so why not put on a 70th birthday tribute.  It would be a campaign calling for his release – the first step in ending apartheid – and it would be produced as a global television event.  I was quite clear about that.

“Simple Minds were keen – so long as I brought in another top group.  They wanted another act on the bill which could also bring in tickets because they were worried about using up their own ticket-selling capacity.”  Hollingsworth had already started to approach other musicians and, at the same time, had begun what turned out to be a series of meetings with Mike Terry, head of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London.  If the event was to be successful, it was important to win the support of the movement, which was the focus in the UK of the opposition to the apartheid regime.

Hollingsworth never saw the Birthday Tribute as a “concert”.  For him, it was a television programme, one that was being created via a concert.  More than that, the television programme was part of a campaign to get Mandela released.  There were three steps to the campaign.

1st campaign step:Stop television and radio news referring to Mandela as a “black terrorist leader”.  The key aspect of this was to make the event a musical birthday tribute (albeit one that would call for Mandela’s release) rather than, as the Anti-Apartheid Movement wanted, what would in effect be a political event calling for sanctions and the release of all political prisoners.

Hollingsworth was certain that most broadcasters would not agree to carry such an event, even if some might cover it briefly in the news.  Further, he would be able to sell a musical tribute to the entertainment divisions of the broadcasters, which would not have to seek approval from above or the news divisions.  And further, as he correctly predicted, the news divisions would no longer be able to refer to Mandela as a black terrorist leader.  As soon as they signed up – three months before the global broadcast event was due to take place – broadcasters across the world had “cleaned up” the news.

2nd campaign step:Produce an event that would be taken by broadcasters across the world and to as big an audience as possible.  For this he needed (a) a very large number of top stars; and (b) an event organised as a television programme.  This involved something very different from a normal concert or live event.  Concert-goers at Wembley were unlikely to walk out if there was a lull in the music.  But the television audience would very easily switch off or tune into a different programme.  So the scheduling needed to be different, with top stars appearing every half hour or so rather than just towards the end (hence Sting opening the event a mid-day).

Further there must be no awkward gaps between acts which would allow television viewers to switch off or the broadcasters to insert interviews with artists or impose their own narrative on the programme.

The programme still had to be sold, with Hollingsworth at first hoping to sell the event to 40 or so broadcasters around the world.  He sold it to 67, doing much of the selling himself, though more broadcasters probably took the show as a result of many African countries being given a free licence.  There was an estimated audience of 600 million.

3rd campaign step:Use the millions of viewers to persuade politicians that the public wanted Mandela released and apartheid ended quickly.  The Anti-Apartheid Movement and the African National Congress would make use of the hoped-for new popularity of the anti-apartheid message to press governments to apply pressure on the South African regime.  Whoever the agents of change were, there is little doubt that the Birthday Tribute played an important role in informing people of what was going on in South Africa, galvanising opposition to its

Signing up the Anti-Apartheid Movement

Terry and his senior officials firmly resisted Hollingsworth’s proposal, insisting on three conditions, based on the policies of the African National Congress.

First, the event must focus on all political prisoners in South Africa, not just Mandela. Mandela had himself told the ANC that he did not wish to be singled out from other prisoners in the organisation’s campaigning. Second, the event must campaign against apartheid as a whole and this was to be in its title. Third, it must call for sanctions against South Africa.

Hollingsworth argued that the event could not be effective on those terms.  The conditions “were absolutely right as an integral part of the ANC’s and AAM’s campaigning – and they might possibly work for the live audience of a concert – but they would make it impossible for an event that was intended for the mass media across the world,” including countries where there might be little knowledge of Mandela, let alone support for him.  The made-for-television event should not be “angry” but a “positive” birthday tribute, calling only for Mandela to be freed.

He argued that broadcasters would not televise a Mandela event if it followed the AAM and ANC campaign policies.  They would regard it as a political event.  In many cases, it would be against their national regulations.  Other broadcasters would provide the global broadcast event only with limited airtime.  “My point was that a birthday-tribute, produced in a positive manner, would conform to the broadcasters’ entertainment mandate and there was a good chance that they would show the full day’s event.”

“I could understand the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s position.  They were very angry.  Many of their people had had to leave South Africa or had been tortured.  There was some real pain.  I was a white man in London.  They felt suspicious about it all.  But I was certain that the mood of the event had to be positive.  And we had to make sure that we got the broadcasters on board.”

Hollingsworth was not seeking ANC backing because that would have put off broadcasters. He wanted the AAM’s backing although, for similar reasons, did not want the movement’s name on the event.  “It would have been hard to do the event without their support, but I was prepared to do so.”

Terry was the first to come round to Tony Hollingsworth’s view, but needed some time before persuading the rest of his team. On the other hand, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, the AAM president and a former priest in southern Africa, gave his approval after he, Hollingsworth and Terry had met to discuss the event.  “I told Trevor that the first thing we had to do to get Mandela’s release was to stop the world’s television and press referring to him as a ‘black terrorist leader’.  He said ‘How on earth can you do that?’  I said ‘With a musical tribute, not through a political event.’  He saw the logic.”

Signing up the first artists

By the time that the Anti-Apartheid Movement had agreed to support the concert, Hollingsworth had booked Wembley Stadium for the following June and had approached a large number of artists as well as Simple Minds. Few were saying a definite no, but no one would commit.

Tony Hollingsworth wanted Dire Straits to head the bill.  The group was one of the largest acts in the world and the kind of act that was needed if broadcasters across the world were to sign up for the event.

“I wrote to Dire Straits and a short while later got a phone call from Ed Bicknell, their manager, virtually ordering me to go to his office the next day.  I went there, he fired questions at me and abruptly said ‘Thank you.  Goodbye.’  That’s how he talked in those days, with Dire Straits so big.  A short while later he phoned me again.  ‘Right, if you tell anyone this, the deal’s off.  Dire Straits will do this event if you get other artists as big as us or nearly as big as us saying ‘yes’ –  but you mustn’t mention our name’.

“I already had several people saying ‘maybe’.  I got more and I was then able to go to Dire Straits and say ‘I’ve got all these.  Is that good enough?’  I said the same to the others, and they talked to each other, with Bicknell in some cases acting as a go-between.  They agreed to commit.  We clearly had enough talent, so I could announce the bill in March, three months before the concert.  Dire Straits could have sold Wembley four times over by themselves, but we needed all the others if we wanted 11 hours of television and radio in every country in the world.”

The list included Dire Straits, Simple Minds, George Michael, Whitney Houston, Aswad, Hank Wangford, Sly and Robbie, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.  The announcement of the list made it easier to bring in further artists, including the Eurythmics who had earlier refused three times, and also other big names.

There were some difficulties.  Bicknell, for instance, “exploded” when Hollingsworth told him there was one condition to Dire Straits playing. The band must rehearse for the event because it had not been on tour for some time and had even disbanded, albeit temporarily.  Hollingsworth, in fact, told most of the artists they must rehearse – and play to a higher standard than for a commercial event.  In the event, Dire Straits had to bring in a guest rhythm guitarist to replace Jack Sonni, who had just become the father of twin girls. The new man was Eric Clapton.

Soon after the first bill was announced, Simple Minds threatened to quit.  According to Hollingsworth, they said that the show was turning out differently from what they expected.  “They said ‘there’s not enough grit in it.  Whitney Houston and George Michael shouldn’t be there’.  They were worried about their image.  I told them there was plenty of grit in the show – they themselves, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Aswad, Sly and Robbie and others.  I told them Whitney and George, who were extremely popular at the time, were there to broaden the audience.  We needed their pop audience – the audience that was not so likely to know about Mandela and apartheid.  We needed to get across the message to them.”  Simple Minds accepted the argument.  The two big US stars were important in getting US television to take the show.

In the event, Hollingsworth was delighted with George Michael’s performance.  “He asked himself who his black hero was and then decided to sing Marvin Gaye songs.  It was a great cultural-political move.”

Harry Belafonte has to be persuaded

Tony Hollingsworth went to New York to ask singer and actor Harry Belafonte to appear at the event – not to sing but to give the opening address.  Belafonte made it clear he was upset.  He told Hollingsworth: “You’ve got all these musicians appearing and you’re asking me only to talk.  I’m a musician and you’re not asking me to play.  That’s very hard to take.”

Hollingsworth did not want Belafonte to sing because “we would have been going back 30 years and it would have lost our audience – that is, the television audience across the world.  We already knew we were in danger of losing the audience by using African singers and dancers that many people would not have heard of.  But Belafonte was a highly-respected, internationally-known personality and would be a perfect speaker.  So I told him the audience was not the right culture for him. ‘I’d prefer you to talk.’

Belafonte said he would think about it. “And you think about whether I would perform.”

“We then spoke a week later, and he asked me ‘Have you thought about it?’  I said ‘I want you to speak, not perform’.

“Not under any circumstances?”

“Only if you get a category A artist to perform with you.”

“What do you mean by Category A?”

“The likes of Bruce Springsteen or Mick Jagger or Elton John”

“OK, I’ll see what I can do.”

Belafonte came back with a list but Hollingsworth said it wasn’t good enough.  “Eventually, he agreed just to speak.”  Had he refused, Hollingsworth would have tried to get Sydney Poitier.  He had Denzel Washington to introduce one of the acts, but he did not have the gravitas to make the opening address.

Sting’s private flight

Hollingsworth went to great lengths to get Sting to perform at the concert. The singer was associated with human rights issues, partly as a result of his song They Dance Aloneabout the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and was at the height of his popularity.  Sting’s manager Miles Copeland, however, refused even to put the proposition to the singer.  Copeland was planning a world tour for Sting at the time and, he said, the Wembley  broadcast event would not fit in.  The eventual schedule showed Sting due to perform in Berlin the night before Wembley and, the following evening, elsewhere in Europe.

Several weeks before Wembley, Hollingsworth went to Switzerland where Sting was playing and booked himself into the same hotel.

“I called reception from my room and asked them to put me through to Gordon Sumner (Sting’s name).  I introduced myself and told him that his management had stopped me talking to him.  ‘I’m in the hotel, can we meet’.  He told me his room number and I went there.

“He greeted me in his shirt and underpants.  I told him why this was important, why it was important that he appeared.  Like all artists, he had questions.  One of his concerns was if Mandela got out, wouldn’t there be a bloodbath.  Maybe, I said, but that’s no reason to keep him there.

“I told him I’d fly him and his band to London on a private plane after his Friday evening performance, he’d sleep in London and then be driven to the stadium where an identical set of equipment would be set up on stage for him.  He’d do a sound check in the morning, then open the show a few minutes after mid-day, the first act of the event [after an opening speech and an a set of South African show dancers].  He’d come off after half an hour, be driven to the airport and put on the private plane back to the continent for his evening concert.  Sting agreed.

Hollingsworth returned to London, where he immediately got a phone call from an irate Miles Copeland.  “He swore at me and asked when Sting was playing.  I told him.  ‘But,’ he said, ‘he can’t open the show, this is one of the biggest acts in the world.’

“‘Yes’, ‘he can,’ I said.  ‘This is TV.  It works upside down.  The largest audience tunes into the beginning to see how it’s going to be.’

‘Is that so?’


‘OK, then we’ll be at the beginning.’”

Television, according to Hollingsworth, requires having a big act every half-hour.  He already had more than enough talent for a top live evening event.  But he needed more for a day-long television programme.

Last minute Wonder

Hollingsworth wrote to Stevie Wonder on the day that he decided to go ahead with the event and got no reply.  He phoned him at his studio every week over the next 12 months, but could never get through to the singer.  Senior members of the team told him each time that the matter was under consideration.  “Even after we had announced the event I couldn’t get an answer and gave up.

On the Wednesday before the concert, Hollingsworth was at Wembley in the backstage village of dressing rooms and offices being set up for the concert.  “Someone rushed in from the next room saying that a Mr Stevland Morris was on the phone for me.  I knew it was Stevie and went to take the call.

“Is that Tony?”


“You know who this is?”


“Can you still fit me in?”

“Yes.  There’s exactly 25 minutes available”

“You sure it’s not 24 minutes or 26 minutes.  I’d really like to come, I’d really like to come.  I’ll see you there on Saturday morning.  But stay on the line and my tour manager will talk to you and tell you the plane tickets to buy.”

The slot had originally been kept open because Hollingsworth had hoped to get Prince and Bono to sing a duet together – an idea that cropped up in a conversation with their manager Ian Flukes.  Both seriously considered it, but finally said no.  Had they agreed, Hollingsworth would certainly not have rejected Stevie Wonder, creating the time by cutting a few minutes off other act.

Wonder’s participation was never announced but was to be a surprise for the audience.  In the event, the singer was involved in a major backstage drama when he refused to play and walked out of the stadium – but he returned later.

Broadcast politics

Once the first set of artists had signed up, Hollingsworth started to approach broadcasters, with the first port of call being the BBC – crucial in winning a big British audience but also very important if he was to persuade overseas broadcasters to sign up.

He and Neville Bolt, with whom he had worked on The Secret Policeman’s Third Ball and had formed the Elephant House production company, approached John Gau, a former head of BBC current affairs.  Gau was now running his own production company, for which Bolt had worked, and set up a meeting with Alan Yentob, recently-appointed controller of BBC2, a position that Gau himself had turned down.

As the meeting went on, says Hollingsworth, and Yentob was clearly interested, Gau told him “Alan, you’ve got to bite the bullet”.  Yentob agreed, telling Hollingsworth: “I’ll give you five hours.  If the bill improves, I’ll increase the time.”  Which he eventually did to the full 11 hours, plus the half-hour overrun.

According to Hollingsworth, “it was a brave move by Yentob.  The BBC was having a hard time asserting its independence from the government, which was pressing it to release footage it had of Northern Ireland.  And Yentob was well aware that Thatcher was a supporter of apartheid.  It was inconceivable that with all these artists, many of them cultural heroes, singing Happy Birthday to Mandela – and with what we hoped would be a worldwide audience of millions – there would not be some effect.  If we sang Happy Birthday loud enough, it would move things.”

Not surprisingly, there was a good deal of opposition to the event and to the BBC’s agreement to broadcast it.  The South African consulate complained, as did 24 Conservative MPs, who claimed that the participants would be shown soliciting money for armed rebellion against the South African government.  No appeal was made or ever planned.  Further, the artists’ contracts – which in many cases were signed backstage at Wembley – laid down that no proceeds from the income of the event should go “towards the purchase of or in any other connection with armaments.”

What problemsthere were came from the other side. Both the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Hollingsworth received bomb threats warning them not to go ahead with the event.  This was nothing new for the Anti-Apartheid Movement, whose offices were behind bars.  It was entirely new for Hollingsworth who received telephone threats – from a man with a South African voice – at his office in Primrose Hill and his home in Peckham.  Further, says Hollingsworth, “my phone used to click at a certain time in the evening.  This started six weeks before the event and for two or three years afterwards.”  Nearer the event, there was a threat to blow up the power plant distributing electricity to Wembley.

With the BBC on board, it was easier to persuade foreign broadcasters – and mostly their entertainment divisions – to buy the rights for the show, with many of the sales being handled by Hollingsworth himself.  “We had to make it clear to them that the show would be a birthday tribute, that it was entertainment and not political.  That way, the entertainment divisions of the broadcasters could agree to show the broadcast event without referring the question upwards or to the news or current-affairs divisions.

“Once the entertainment divisions had said ‘yes’ to the event, the news divisions would have to stop referring to Mandela as a ‘black terrorist leader’, thereby helping to ensure that Mandela was looked upon in a more favourable light.  This was the first campaign objective and it was beginning to happen by March, three months before the concert,” as Hollingsworth told BBC Radio Scotland.

Broadcasters were also told that the global broadcast event would use two stages, with top acts on the main stage and lesser-known groups on the second, enabling acts to follow each other without a break,. There would therefore be no need for broadcasters to add material between events. The reasoning was that, first, the event would look like a television show without awkward gaps encouraging audiences to switch off; and, second, broadcasters would be less likely to impose their own narrative on the event. The use of film stars to introduce major acts also helped achieve these objectives.  Some broadcasters planned to carry out backstage interviews for the presumed gaps but they stopped after a couple of hours.

Most broadcasters showed the event live, using the worldwide feed provided by Hollingsworth’s company, Elephant House.  Others, particularly in the Americas, showed it delayed because of the time difference. Most gave more or less full coverage.

In the US, the Fox Television network, owned by Rupert Murdoch, showed only six hours in what was referred to as a “significantly de-radicalised version”.  A number of artists had their songs or speeches cut. One US newspaper objected that Fox “cut out some of the most passionate – and especially most political – moments of the day”.  Steven Van Zandt (aka Little Steven) was appalled when he saw a recording of the Fox broadcast on his return to the US.  He complained to the press, describing it as “a totally Orwellian experience”.  His own contribution, including a strident rendering of the song, Sun City, was one of those that were cut.  Fox was worried about its sponsors and advertisers, particularly Coca-Cola which had booked six advertising spots for each hour.

Whitney Houston, who was contracted to make advertisements for Coca-Cola, did her act in front of a black backdrop instead of the usual picture of Nelson Mandela.  But, according to Hollingsworth, this was nothing to do with censorship but the result of an electricity generator failing and the need to lower the back lights to get enough luminescence on the stage.

Fox also refused to use the title, “Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute”.  Instead, it billed the show as Freedomfest, rejecting a plea by Hollingsworth plea to at least add “for Nelson Mandela”.

A further issue was highlighted by film actor Whoopie Goldberg when she came on stage to introduce one of the acts, saying that she had been told to say nothing political. The request did not come from Hollingsworth but from the Fox TV producer at Wembley who, unbeknown to Hollingsworth, told the Hollywood film stars to avoid saying anything party-political because an election was coming up in the States.  Goldberg and other American artists interpreted “political” in a far broader sense than merely “party-political”.  After the event, the producer – in charge of his own editing team for the US broadcast – took out a full-page advertisement in a US trade magazine thanking American artists for participating in his show.

The producer had been flown in a week before the Wembley event to replace Fox’s original choice who had been working on the production for three weeks.  According to Hollingsworth, she was thought by the network to have become infected by the political ethos of the event organisation.

Hollingsworth was not overly worried by Fox’s version of the broadcast .  “Six hours of an event devoted to Nelson Mandela is still a massive political statement, no matter how you edit it, whether or not it includes Whoopie Goldberg’s words.  It was still on the right side of the fence and it had an enormous impact.  No one had ever done six hours on a US network.  And it was for Nelson Mandela!”

On-stage talk

There were supposed to be no political speeches at the event except for the message that Nelson Mandela should be freed – coming from Harry Belafonte in his opening speech, from the film stars and musicians introducing the acts or the next piece of music and from the slogans around the stage. The principle – aimed at ensuring that broadcasters would, first, buy the television rights and, second, continue to show the proceedings – was more or less followed.

Early on, the organisers stopped an insistent Jessie Jackson, the black American politician, from going on stage to make a speech. To have agreed to the request would have made it very difficult to say no to others. Jackson was, instead, shepherded to the Royal Box, joining Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock and Liberal leader David Steel along with a number of actors and musicians.

None the less, the wider political message about apartheid and its consequences was got across by a number of factors: the holding of the event itself, the songs that were played, the posters displayed in the stadium, the political references from the actors and musicians, the way the singers worked the audience and, indeed, the way the audience responded.  One or two artists took a harder line. Steven Van Zandt, for instance, in the run-up to singing Sun City with Simple Minds, declared that “we the people will no longer tolerate the terrorism of the government of South Africa” and that “we will no longer do business with those who do business with the terrorist government of South Africa”.

Hollingsworth had no intention that the event would be tame.  “I wanted to go as far as we could with the political message while sticking to my promise to the broadcasters.  The whole point of the event was to get a political message across.  Little Steven wasn’t in the show by accident.  I knew what he was like.”  Hollingsworth also ensured that particular, resonant songs were played during the day (see box).

Stevie Wonder walks out

Stevie Wonder landed in England on the Saturday morning and went straight to the stadium.  “I had a little room for him and his band to warm up in,” says Hollingsworth.  “We decided to put him on immediately after UB40 in the evening.  We hadn’t told the audience, they had no idea he was in the stadium.”

“The time came, UB 40 were finishing their set on the main stage, and Stevie’s equipment was set up, plugged in and ready to be rolled on after a 10-minute act on a side stage.  We get him to the point of walking up the ramp to the stage when my production manager rushes up and says ‘Someone’s removed the hard disc from Stevie’s synclavier [keyboard synthesiser].’”

On the hard disc, Wonder had programmed 25 minutes of synthesised music for his performance.  “I asked him if he could play without it and he said no.  Then he turned round and walked down the ramp, his band and other members of his entourage following him.  He’s crying and walks through the gate and out of the stadium.

“I couldn’t follow him, I’ve got a 25-minute gap to fill.  I run backstage to Tracy Chapman’s manager, Elliot Roberts, and shout in his ear that Stevie’s gone and I need Tracy to sing two songs to fill the gap.”  She had already appeared on stage and had gone down well with the audience.  But she’s the perfect act for the crisis – just a singer and her guitar, no complicated equipment.  Roberts, who had managed and directed music for Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, “knows he’s been given the gift of the Gods,” says Hollingsworth.  He walks her on to the side stage and she sings.

The global broadcast event shot her to stardom as a result, mainly, of two songs from her recent first album – Fast Car and Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.  Before Wembley, she had sold about 250,000 albums.  In the following two weeks, she sold two million.  Hollingsworth admits that he had not sought her for the concert.  Roberts had phoned to suggest that she appear and her record company had sent him her album.

“Stevie Wonder comes back,” says Hollingsworth, “and sits down in his cabin, very, very depressed.  We can’t set his band up again so I try to persuade him to use the equipment that Whitney Houston, who is due to appear on the main-stage soon, will be using.  He really doesn’t want to do it. 

“Other acts go on, I go back to Stevie but he still says no.  So I went round each member of the band to see if they would use someone else’s equipment.  They all agreed.  By this time, Whitney is on stage and there are three minutes to go before she finishes.  I tell Stevie this is our last chance.  If you don’t go on now, we’re straight into Dire Straits and there will be no opportunity for you to play.  And he says Yes.

“Whitney has now finished and there’s a filler act on the side stage.  But there’s no way of communicating with them to finish or the people mixing the sound to switch over to the main stage.  And I couldn’t let the act continue for very long because I needed the time for Stevie.  So I ran the hundred yards around the ramps and scaffolding to the side stage and tell the sound-mixers to pull the handle down, cutting off the sound.

“I shouted on my head-phones for the lights to go dark, but to keep the main stage audio up.  There was no announcement.  There’s no sound from the stage and, then, out of the darkness, comes I Just Called to Say I Love You.  There was a huge audience scream, the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard, a great scream of happiness.  Then lights come on and Stevie goes into the rest of the set.

“He’s just singing, not using anybody else’s equipment, and shouting to the rest of the band what notes to play – all this had been programmed on the lost hard disc.

Final acts

Stevie Wonder was followed by Dire Straits, the headline act, with the evening due to be finished with a rendering of the American slave song Amazing Grace by opera singer Jessye Norman and a fireworks display.  Hollingsworth chose the song because “the US had seemingly come through so much of what was happening in South Africa and it was an important thing to echo”.

With the show running late, Hollingsworth was growing increasingly afraid that Brent council and Wembley officials would insist on cutting the show short by turning off the electricity.  So, half-way through the Dire Straits set, he decided that, to avoid being approached by the officials, he, rather than the production manger, would go on to the Wembley roof to give the signal for the fireworks display to start.

From the roof top, he experienced what for him was one of the key moments of the day as Dire Straits’s Mark Knofler came to the microphone to say “It’s the best party I’ve ever been to,” pauses and adds “One humanity, one justice” before the band launch into Brothers In Arms.



The estimated audience for the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute of 600 million in 67 countries was arguably an underestimate in that several broadcasters in Africa were given a free licence.  Not surprisingly, the apartheid government refused to allow the event to be broadcast in South Africa.  However, soon after, younger political detainees with Mandela smuggled in a video of the event in the guise of an educational video.  During the event itself, Mandela’s wife Winnie heard snatches of the music in the background when Oliver Tambo, head of the African National Congress and a VIP at Wembley, phoned to tell her how well the global broadcast event was going.

The event had a strong effect across the world, first among ordinary people, then among politicians, increasing pressure on the South African government to release Mandela.  It became increasingly likely that he would be released, albeit 20 months after the Birthday Tribute and 27 years after he was imprisoned.  Shortly before the release, Mandela's lawyer asked Hollingsworth and Terry to meet him to plan another broadcast event at which Mandela himself would speak and call for the end of apartheid.

The first Mandela event, according to journalist John Carlin (talking to BBC Radio Scotland), “had a significant impact on the white South African apartheid government.  They were sensitive to international pressure.  An event as big as this created at one level a tremendous sense of embarrassment.  They liked to think of themselves as fairly ‘Europeans-in-Africa’ people.”  But, says Carlin, who has written extensively about South Africa, “the event drew attention to how crass and cruel the system was they were running.”

Mandela, he says, “was tremendously appreciative.  He understood very well how such a large global broadcast event would have an impact.”

**The Birthday Tribute provided a big boost for the musicians who took part.  At the bottom end, the almost-unknown Tracy Chapman, who was virtually pushed on stage for a second appearance to fill the sudden gap left by Stevie Wonder, made her name.  At the top end, Dire Straits, according to their manager Ed Bicknell, sold more than two million back albums over the next year or so as a result of their performance at Wembley.

Tony received the following letter from the Anti-Apartheid Movement, dated 12th June 1988 and signed by Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, Dr Allan Boesak, Robert Hughes MP, Andimba Toivo ja Toivo and Oliver Tambo.

Dear Tony,

On behalf of all of us who got the credit for the marvellous Anti Apartheid concert and all that will follow from it – a thousand thanks!

Certainly it makes a landmark in our history: the greatest single event we have undertaken in support of the struggle.

Now we can certainly look forward to the future with enormously renewed hope.

God bless you, and thanks again.

Signed by:

Archbishop Huddleston
Dr Allan Boesak
Robert Hughes MP
Andimba Toivo ja Toivo
Oliver Tambo

Tony Letter

Performers and speakers (by order of appearance)

Farafina                                                       Drummers

Harry Belafonte-                  Opening address and introduction for Sting

Sting                                                                Set them FreeThey Dance AloneEvery Breath You TakeMessage in a Bottle

Lenny Henry                                                   Introduction for George Michael

George Michael                                             Village GhettolandIf You Were My WomanSexual Healing

Sir Richard Attenborough                           (Speech)

Whoopi Goldbergand Richard Gere         (Speech)

Richard Gere                                                  Introduction for The Eurythmics

Eurythmics–                                                   I Need a ManThere Must Be an AngelHere Comes the Rain AgainYou
                                                                          Have Placed a Chill in my Heart
When Tomorrow ComesSweet Dreams,
                                                                          Brand New Day

Graham Chapman                                       (Speech)

Arnhemland Dancers

Whoopi Goldberg                                         (Speech)


Lenny Henry                                                  Michael Jackson parody

Lenny Henry                                                  Introduction for Al Green

Al Green                                                         Let's Stay Together

Joe Cocker                                                   Unchain my Heart

Jonathan Butler                                           True Love Never Fails

Freddie Jackson                                          Jam Tonight

Ashford & Simpson                                   Ain't No Mountain High Enough

Natalie Cole                                                Pink Cadillac

Al GreenJoe CockerJonathan Butler,
Freddie JacksonAshford & Simpson,
Natalie Cole                                                He’s Got the Whole World in his HandHigher and Higher

Lenny Henry                                               Introduction for Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie

Fry & Laurie                                                (Stand-up comedy)

Tracy Chapman (first appearance)        Why?Behind the WallTalking 'Bout a Revolution

Daryl Hannah                                               Introduction for Wet Wet Wet

Wet Wet Wet                                               Wishing I was lucky

Tony Hadley                                                 A Harvest for the World

Joan Armatrading                                     Love and Affection

Midge Ure, Phil Collins                             Peace and a Restless World

Paul Carrack                                              How Long

Fish                                                              Kayleigh

Paul Young                                                Don't Dream It’s Over

Curt Smith                                                 Everybody Wants to Rule the World

Bryan Adams                                          Somebody

Bee Gee                                                   You Win AgainI've Gotta Get a Message to You

Ali McGrawPhilip Michael Thomas     Introduction for Jonas Gwangwa

Jonas Gwangwa

Lenny Henry                                                Introduction for Salif Keita

Salif Keita

Youssou N’Dour                                        Pitche Mi

Jackson BrowneYoussou N’Dour      When the Stone Begins to Turn

Sly & RobbieAswad                                Set Them Free

MahlathiniMahotella Queens

Gregory Hines                                            Introduction for UB40 and Chrissie Hynde

UB40                                                            Rat In Mi Kitchen, Red Red Wine

UB40Chrissie Hynde                             I Got You BabeBreakfast in BedSing our Own Song

Whoopi Goldberg                                    One Woman Show

Tracy Chapman(second appearance)    Fast CarAcross the Lines

Billy Connolly                                            (Speech)

Hugh MasakelaMiriam Makeba         SowetoBlues

Miriam Makeba                                       Pata Pata

Courtney PineIDJ Dancers

Emily LloydDenzel Washington         Introduction for Simple Minds

Simple Minds                                           WaterfrontSummertime BluesMandela DaySanctify YourselfEast at
Alive and Kicking

Peter GabrielSimple Minds                 Biko

Steven van ZandtSimple Minds,
David Sanborn                                          Sun City

Jerry DammersSimple Minds             Free Nelson Mandela

Harry Enfield                                              (Stand-up comedy)


Corbin BernsenJennifer Beals                        Introduction for Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston                                  Didn't We Almost Have It AllLove Will Save the DaySo EmotionalWhere
                                                            Do Broken Hearts Go, How will I knowHe/I Believe(duet with her mother
                                                            Cissy Houston), I Wanna Dance with SomebodyThe Greatest Love of all

Meat Loaf                                            Introduction for Salt-N-Pepa

Salt-N-Pepa                                         Push it

Derek B                                               Free Mandela

Stevie Wonder                                     I Just Called to Say I Love You, (Speech), Dark 'n 'Lovely

Fat BoysChubby Checker                   The Twist

Harry Enfield                                        (Stand-up comedy)

Billy Connolly                                     (Stand-up comedy)

Billy Connolly                                     Introduction for Dire Straits and Eric Clapton

Dire Straitswith Eric Clapton                Walk of LifeSultans of SwingRomeo and JulietMoney for Nothing,
                                                            Brothers in ArmsWonderful TonightSolid Rock

Jessye Norman                                               Amazing Grace (concert finale)

There were also appearances by Grupo Experimental de DansaH. B. BarnumMick KarnMark KellyRay LemaJohnny MarrSteve Norman.

Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute - Wikipedia link