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Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

By Mel Cooke—

On Sunday, July 21, 1991, there was a physically small advisory in the entertainment section of The Sunday Gleaner which made a tremendous impact on the singers and players of instruments. 

Under the headline ‘Calling artists for Mandela tribute’, it read: “Artists wishing to perform at the cultural tribute to Nelson and Winnie Mandela on Wednesday, July 24, must register at the offices of the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission, 3 – 5 Phoenix Avenue, on Monday, July 22, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.”

A huge response was clearly anticipated – and with good reason. South Africa’s apartheid system, in general, and the freedom of Nelson Mandela in particular, were central topics for Jamaican popular music. Among the better-known songs are Bob Marley and the Wailers’ War, an adaptation of Haile Selassie’s 1963 speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

War first appeared on the 1976 Rastaman Vibration album and, in performance, was fused with No More Trouble as it appears on the 1978 Babylon By Bus album.

Then there was Peter Tosh’s Apartheid, the final track on his 1978 Equal Rights album.

Completing the Wailing Wailers troika’s individual take on the apartheid matter was Bunny Wailer with Botha the Mosquito, on his 1989 album Liberation.

But the deejays weighed in on the matter of apartheid and Mandela as well. In Lodge, his ode to sheer gunmanship on the ‘Sleng Teng’ rhythm, which starts with the ominous and unforgettable cry of “people dead!”, after going through a number of Jamaican communities, Bounty Killer tosses a lyric South Africa’s way.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

On the track, which appears on the 1994 Roots, Reality and Culture album:

Dem run whe Botha an put een de Klerk

Wait we a wait cause dah skull a goh burs”

Brigadier Jerry, was specific to the then incarcerated African National Congress (ANC) leader on a pair of tracks, the first stating “free Mandela, we a go free Mandela/free Mandela from the one Botha”. Then, after Mandela was released, he rejoiced “Briggy free Mandela, from the hand of the oppressor”.

Carlene Davis mentioned Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, but it was his wife Winnie who was her focus in Winnie Mandela, where Davis was sure that “any day now apartheid’s got to fall”. Then, upon Mandela’s release, Davis did Welcome Home Mandela.

Carlene Davis

Carlene Davis

Mutabaruka’s Beware

His freedom did not come without a warning, though, as after Mandela’s release, on Beware poet Mutabaruka cautioned:


Mandela beware

Mine yuh share out wi share

Mandela beware

Over 400 years dem nuh care


Steve James of Bess FM

Steve James of Bess FM

Last Friday Steve James, who hosts the Real Rock programme on Bess FM on Thursdays and Fridays, presented a programme centred around songs which speak about apartheid South Africa, in general, and the Mandelas in particular. “When we heard that he was sick I said we should do something on him before everybody jump on the bandwagon,” James said.

Among the songs that made the cut were the Mikey Bennett-penned pair of Can You and Free at Last, Sugar Minott’s A Letter to Nelson Mandela, Mandela’s Release by Scion Success and Sister Carol and Mandela Free by Barrington Levy. Supercat weighed in with Mandela Land (in which he says “is him and Winnie Mandela come”), there was Crying in Soweto by Harold Butler, Macka B and Kofi contributed Proud of Mandela and, as James pointed out, Mandela is mentioned in Morgan Heritage’s Blackman’s Paradise.

He included some quotes from Mandela. One is “a good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination”; another goes, “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear”.

James is pleased with the feedback to the programme. “Everybody call and say, Steve, you are doing a good thing,” he said, pointing out that, as the show is streamed, the listenership is wide, with persons from England and Colombia responding.

It did seem that Mandela was coming to a second home when he visited Jamaica on his post-release world tour. On Monday, July 22, 1991, the lead story’s headline, ‘Mandela: A very busy day’, with the subhead ‘Full programme of activities for ANC leader’, outlined a full programme for Nelson and Winnie Mandela on Wednesday, July 24.

Music’s importance was clear, as after a detailed itinerary which included visits to National Heroes Park, the University of the West Indies, Mona campus, and National Heroes Park, “the climax of the day’s activities will be the event at the National Stadium”.

There were two possibilities – if Mandela was leaving on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 24, it would begin at 2 p.m., with Mandela arriving at about 2:30 p.m. when the music would stop and he would be officially welcomed. If he was leaving on Thursday morning, the concert would start at 4 p.m. and Mandela would arrive between 5:30 p.m. and 6:00 p.m.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela

Delayed arrival

On Wednesday, July 24, The Gleaner reported that the Mandelas’ arrival in Jamaica was delayed, after the Cubana airplane taking then from Spain to Jamaica, then Cuba, had developed problems. Still, Gordon C. Williams reported, “At the National Stadium construction of a stage on the playing field, for a planned concert in Mr Mandela’s honour, continued through light bursts of rain. Soldiers were brought in to work alongside civilians.”

The concert did happen, but the lasting impression was not the music. It was a shooting. The Gleaner reported on Thursday, July 25 that as the Mandelas were later than scheduled “a crowd had gone to the National Stadium from as early as noon, with hundreds taking water bottles and food. And vendors camped around the ground as people marked out their positions. All the car parks were full, spilling over onto neighbouring streets, backing up hundreds of yards”.

But, on the front page of the same publication, The Gleaner recorded that three persons were shot as “a policeman opened fire into a section of the crowd which started pelting them with bottles and other missiles, after the police had repeatedly tried to prevent people scaling a fence into a restricted area”.

One man, Sidney Astor Francs, who lived at 4 Fort Totten Drive, Garveymeade, St Catherine, died.


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