REPORTING ON ROBBEN ISLAND VISIT 7 MARCH 2003
“Part of a clipping from Cape Town newspaper Die Burger – a papparazzi shot outside the studio…
[CAPE TOWN, South Africa, 8 Mar 03]
“Brian May here…
The days here in beautiful sunny Cape Town have been intense, on the edge of chaotic yet productive, and immensely stimulating. Not to mention unforgettable…
This morning’s conference telephone conversation with Nelson Mandela himself was thrilling beyond belief, to the point where my mind started to freeze, as if time stood still. The man’s voice is so instantly recognisable, his manner so magnificently human and humorous and humble. Yet it is also the unmistakable voice of the man who will never sacrifice his dignity or that of his people, the voice of authority, maturity, full of the power of forgiveness over impossible odds. Yes, I felt overawed and tongue-tied – I truly believe this man is the supreme statesman of our time.
So at 9am, there we were, the three of us, Roger, myself, and Dave Stewart, sitting around a microphone at a table in a conference room in the hotel. Around us, Mr Mudbone, the two chaps from Mr Mandela’s organisation who have been hosting the project here, Mr Mandela’s film director friend, and our Mr and Mrs Beach, of course.
Mr Mandela is in his office in Johannesburg, and Roddy, our co-ordinator here, presses the buttons to make the connection.
What did the Great Man say? Well, Dave Stewart has a recording (this genius records EVERYTHING!), though I’m sure some of what was said will remain private. But Mr Mandela said he was thrilled we had taken on the project to further the crusade against AIDS in Africa, and more than once told us he was highly “honoured” to meet US – that threw me – he was much more au fait with who we were than I had imagined. To meet US?! Of course I answered that it was very much the other way round!! A few words to each of us individually – promising to come to the studio, joking he was doubtful about his song-writing abilities! Dave did most of the talking, as is correct, since he is the prime mover here, but the over-riding memory for me was that VOICE – the voice that has shaken a nation into growing up – how I wish he could shake up the entire World, teach them the monstrous power of acceptance and forgiveness, rather than anger and revenge. I just wanted to sit the governments of the Western World down and make them listen to that voice. Watch them quietly absorb the magnitude of the spirit of a man who suffered unjustly for more than two DECADES, did not even appeal his sentence, believing he could change the world by being where he was, in appalling conditions, night and day, for all those years. And finally triumphantly emerging from that Hell, having been deprived of half his adult life, not to scream Revenge, not to turn the tables on his aggressors, but to strive to achieve peace between the races, reconciliation and understanding, the foundations of the first democracy in South Africa.
” Deep into the icy waters of the Atlantic
Somewhere around the Cape of Storms
Encaged by rocky beaches all around
Assaulted by piercing winds from the Benguela
Like an abandoned Ship
Lies the Island of the Damned”
– Tokyo Sexwale – Ex-Robben Island prisoner and former
premier of the province of Gauteng.
Yesterday we visited Robben Island, the scene of most of Mr Mandela’s life imprisonment – we chose this as the place to do the Press announcement of our intents. The experience is humbling and inspiring – everyone was moved to silence, and in some cases tears. They have preserved the Prison intact, the tiny cells in which the Freedom fighters were confined, including the one to which Mr Mandela was consigned – with a mat on the floor to sleep on, between walls which were scarcely wide enough apart for Mr Mandela to lie full-length. We saw the courtyard where for years the prisoners were made to silently chip away at rocks from sunrise to sunset, in scorching heat and bitter cold, in shorts, (to remind them that they were considered as “boys”) no underclothes, no socks. We saw the lime quarry where they later spent years, half blinded by the intense glare, half choked with the dust, chipping away at the rock face with small picks. We saw the beauty of this tiny island, with the distant view of Cape Town and Table Mountain, and imagined how it must have felt, endlessly cut off from civilisation, not even allowed to know how the World was changing while they were imprisoned in their cruel time-capsule.
Mr [Ahmed] Kathrada who showed us around, the man closest to Nelson Mandela all those years, told us that when the news came of their impending release, they were told it had come by fax. Mr Kathrada said his first question was, “What IS a FAX!?” The overwhelming impression talking to Mr Kathrada is that of a gentle man with a quiet sense of humour – he exudes understanding and an complete lack of bitterness. If you read “The Long Walk to Freedom”, [LINK TO EXTRACT: ROBBEN ISLAND: The Dark Years] Mr Mandela’s fabulous autobiographical book, largely written in secret inside the prison and smuggled out in fragments over the years, you will identify this Mr Kathrada as “Kathy”, Mr. Mandela’s closest friend in prison, a truly inspiring human being. DO read the Nelson Mandela book – it’s spellbinding.
The rest of yesterday for us was spent in the studio apart from a visit to a local radio station (KFM, very friendly) and again loads was achieved. Dave presided over great overdubs and more improvisation by African musicians mixed in with tracks from us and those previously recorded with Bono and Joe Strummer. All very vibey and interesting – all inspiring for future developments of the tracks. But Dinner was another special treat. We ate formally (but not in suits!) in the Parliament building, at the invitation of Mr Kathrada, another very memorable moment. We sat in a splendid dining room in the heart of South Africa’s National Government building – the very same rooms which housed the men who fashioned the vicious apartheid laws and had them enforced with such unbelievable cruelty. More recently these rooms housed the most celebrated former victims of the oppression, Mr Mandela’s government – necessitating many changes in the pictures on the walls.
I have felt thrilled throughout all this, but always a little unworthy and inadequate – I wish from the bottom of my soul that we had been able to help earlier. Of course we have been supporting AIDS projects all over Africa for many years, through the Mercury Phoenix Trust. But our attitude was always that the best contribution we could make was our music, and taking it to the whole world across all barriers. Being overtly political would have cut us off from many countries where people wanted to see us play. We chose to present a non-political face. Plus we were not invited to those Nelson Mandela concerts in the UK – we were probably not deemed a necessary component at that time. Of course, if we had been asked there is no doubt we would have participated, but I have a tinge of regret about NOT plunging in earlier. Of course our concerts in Sun City, so vilified by certain groups of people who had never even been to South Africa to see for themselves, were a conscious and careful decision on our part. The money we earned was put into a local project – the Kutlwanong School for the Deaf, but we basically made our OWN decision that we would achieve more in the fight against Apartheid by being here than succumbing to the pressure to stay away. Many people here have said to us now that the visits from us, from Elton, Cliff Richard and others may have accelerated the move to abolish apartheid because of the controversy they caused, the international dialogue against which it became increasingly hard for the ruling Afrikaans to justify their Nazi-like position. That was our hope – I’m glad that history has to an extent vindicated our point of view. But I certainly don’t want to claim any credit, only that we acted according to our own conscience, as did all the elements, often at war with each other, who shared only the common dream of ridding the country of the tyranny of Racism.
Today, I still feel ignorant and small, but determined to do my bit, whatever that may be, to further the fight against poverty, ignorance, and the dreaded disease that is wiping out a whole generation in this continent. We will also continue to have fun doing it – what a privilege…. How inspiring to realise that in the midst of all this story, Mr Mandela, Mr Kathrada, and their old friends during all the painful years, still have a huge sense of FUN, and without bitterness or blame, are enjoying the beauty of life.”