“Free-e-e-e-e-e Nelson Mandela,” belted Amy Winehouse a few years ago, long after he had been released from prison. She was singing at a 46664 concert, which Madiba had endorsed and wanted to have happen, for yet another wonderful philanthropic cause.
South Africa’s beloved leader, Nelson Mandela, never professed to be a musician of any sort. The country’s favourite father, who died in December 2013, was a great personal brand builder, but never showed an inclination for music. How is it then that his legacy is so inextricably linked to music?
One explanation is that South Africa’s people (irrespective of race or creed) were liberated by music. During the deepest, darkest days of apartheid, the unifying voice of the struggle was a musical one. From the toyitoyis and the protest marches to the rallies and the planning sessions, the people were unified by music. With songs that spread the message, “Be silent, nation, do not cry, your God will work it out for you, grab freedom,” and “When the road is thorny, we shall pray,” music is what kept the people going, and what lifted the spirits.
Nelson Mandela’s own focus and determination to not let his 27 years in prison get the better of him are also truly inspiring. And music was always a part of that. The song that Amy Winehouse sang was a favourite at concerts organised in Europe, to bring the plight of Mandela, languishing in prison, to the fore. As part of his 70th birthday celebrations, in 1988 (when he was still in prison), a huge concert was held in his honour in London.
Such is the power of music, to stir souls and people and nations, and change doctrines, to steel the will of the people to move towards what is right, despite the odds. Our beloved Madiba was the conduit for a great musical tradition – and South Africa is all the richer for it.