A Milestone Of Freedom for Nelson Mandela

The anti-apartheid leader, with actor Will Smith, waves from the stage at the celebrity-studded 46664 charity concert in Hyde Park.
The anti-apartheid leader, with actor Will Smith, waves from the stage at the celebrity-studded 46664 charity concert in Hyde Park. (By Lefteris Pitarakis -- Associated Press)
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By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, June 28, 2008

LONDON, June 27 -- Nelson Mandela shuffled slowly to the microphone before about 46,000 people gathered here to celebrate his 90th birthday. He looked frail, leaning on his wife's arm. And then he spoke with the optimism and power of a man with a history of defeating long odds.

"Where there is poverty and sickness, including AIDS, where human beings are being oppressed, there is work to be done," he said, speaking slowly but strongly. "Our work is freedom for all."

The crowd erupted in cheers for a man whose name and smile have become a global symbol of peace and possibility. The outdoor concert in London's Hyde Park had a lineup that spanned generations and styles, from 67-year-old folk legend Joan Baez to popster du jour Leona Lewis, from the soaring song lines of the Soweto Gospel Choir to the plunging necklines of the Sugababes, from Amy Winehouse to Josh Groban to Emmaneul Jal. Over several hours, all paid tribute to the powerful role music has played in the narrative of Mandela's life and turned the park into a world dance party.

"Friends, 20 years ago London hosted a historic concert which called for our freedom," Mandela said, referring to the June 1988 Free Mandela concert that solidified the global anti-apartheid movement and helped Mandela become the world's most famous political prisoner.

"Your voices carried across the water to inspire us in our prison cells far away," Mandela said, surrounded by rock stars and actors and political leaders. "Tonight, we are free. We are honored to be back in London."

Mandela, known in South Africa by the affectionate nickname Madiba (pronounced Ma-DEE-ba), actually turns 90 on July 18. But led by actor and concert host Will Smith, and later by U2's Bono and the Edge (joining the concert by video feed), the crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to Mandela, who waved back and smiled with an electricity undiminished by the years.

The concertgoers ranged from gray-haired men in sandals who watched Baez in hushed reverence, to a pair of jolly young women stripped down to their Union Jack bras lugging big plastic bottles of Tuborg beer.

Some were clearly there to enjoy the music, but most seemed to be moved by Mandela. One concertgoer in a suit walked up to a middle-age black man, clearly a stranger, and handed him a beer. The recipient seemed momentarily surprised but then accepted the beer -- and the spontaneous Mandela moment.

It has been virtually Nelson Mandela Week in London, a celebration of the global and generational appeal of a man who served 27 years in a South African prison, then emerged to win a Nobel Peace Prize and become his country's first democratically elected black president. The concert and other fundraising events were expected, according to his staff, to raise at least $20 million for Mandela's charitable foundations.

Earlier in the week, Mandela and his wife, Graca Machel, visited Queen Elizabeth II. Mandela is one of the few people on good enough terms with the monarch to refer to her as "Elizabeth."

The tribute to Africa's most enduring icon of freedom and democracy comes at a time when those values are under assault in Zimbabwe, which borders South Africa. Followers of President Robert Mugabe have killed scores of political opponents and beaten and tortured many more in the lead-up to Friday's presidential runoff election. The brutality forced the opposition candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, to pull out of the race and tell his followers to vote for Mugabe if necessary to protect their safety.

Mandela tends to focus his public statements on causes such as poverty and AIDS and stays away from political fights. But he had come under increasing pressure in recent weeks to use his international stature to condemn Mugabe.

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