One of the landmark events of my Gen X youth was the 11-hour, internationally televised “Free Nelson Mandela” concert in 1988.
Because, come on: how could you not be anti-apartheid?
It was a no-brainer, risk-free cause, the type you could support without having to think about it too much or inviting unpopularity or controversy, right?
Lots of big-name musicians who now boast of being on that concert roster were hesitant to sign on the dotted line unless other bands came on board first.
In fact, most of the backstage machinations and politicking are unedifying tales of cowardice and egomania.
During that concert and the massive publicity surrounding it, Nelson Mandela was presented to millions of young people around the world as a wrongly imprisoned, peace-loving freedom fighter, detained for decades by the evil, crazy, stupid white South Africans, who kept the rest of the country’s majority black population enslaved to various degrees, too.
(Speaking of enslavement, did you know that the term “concentration camp” originated, not in Nazi Germany, but in South Africa, to describe the disease-ridden camps in which South Africans were held by the British during the Second Boer War [1899-1902]?)
Idealistic kids eagerly embraced Mandela as the Gandhi they never had, a Martin Luther King of their very own.
Of course, the real Nelson Mandela was, like those two men, flawed. Arguably more so.
At least Gandhi and King had preached and practiced non-violence.
During my youth, Mandela’s criminal past was, if you’ll pardon the expression, whitewashed.