The 89-year-old man walked slowly onto a stage crowded with rock stars, looked out at the audience of nearly 50,000 concertgoers, and broke into a smile. He still has it, the charisma that held his people together on the Long Walk to Freedom.
In recent years, Nelson Mandela has turned his energy from one enemy – the racist system of government called apartheid – to another – HIV and AIDS.
"If we are to stop the AIDS epidemic from expanding, we need to break the cycle of new HIV infections," said Mr. Mandela, clutching a clear acrylic podium, with his wife, Graça Machel, at his side.
"All of us working together with government, communities, and civil society can make the difference that is needed. Together we have the power to change the course of destiny," he said.
Most politicians kill the vibes of a good concert when they take the stage (a phenomenon called "buzz kill") but somehow the aging Mandela managed to steal the show at Ellis Park rugby stadium in Johannesburg, at a concert marking World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.
This was not a fluke. I remember a similar concert in Boston in June 1990, just after his release from prison. The deputy president of the African National Congress (ANC) was cheered by some 221,000 Bostonians when he came on stage and urged Americans to keep up the pressure on the apartheid government. When the music started again, he danced.
The two concerts – in June 24, 1990, and on Dec. 1, 2007 – serve for me as a pair of bookends in my perception of South Africa. The first concert signified euphoric hope. The second showed the profound challenges ahead. Between the two was a miraculously peaceful power transfer and the precipitous first steps of a liberation movement that aimed to change the world.
Few more than Madiba – as Mandela is known to South Africans – can appreciate the stolen promise of South Africa's emancipation in 1994, just as the HIV epidemic was taking hold. Two million deaths later, the promises of freedom, shared prosperity, homes, clean water, and opportunities have been sadly deferred by a disease that is robbing the country of its most productive citizens.
Yet, few more than Madiba have risen to that challenge, using his status as an elder statesman, beloved by whites and blacks, and lending his prison number – 46664, the symbol of his 27-year-long struggle for freedom – to the cause of defeating HIV just as South Africans defeated apartheid.
Some of the musicians who lobbied for Mandela's freedom in the late 1980s and 90s, such as Peter Gabriel and Johnny Clegg, were present at this year's concert. Others, like the American rock band Live, rapper Ludacris, British singer Corinne Bailey Rae, and the South African funk band Freshlyground are now coming into their own.
AIDS is a controversial subject in South Africa. Mandela's successor, the coolly intellectual President Thabo Mbeki, questions the link between HIV and AIDS and declares that South Africa's bigger enemy is poverty. Mr. Mbeki's health minister questions the effectiveness of AIDS drugs, and has been called "Dr. Beetroot" for her support of traditional treatments like beetroot and garlic.
While Mandela called for action without criticizing his successors in government, British singer and AIDS activist Annie Lennox stepped resolutely over that line and described the AIDS situation in South Africa as "an outrage." After showing an emotional video of a 5-year-old South African girl's struggle with AIDS, Lennox called on South Africans to "get your government to do something about it."
Behind me, a young black concertgoer muttered, "We'll have to get rid of the health minister first."
As the concert continued into the chilly summer night, a group of tired concert-goers are taken through the dodgy neighborhood of Hillbrow – a place synonymous in the news with drugs, crime, murder – in a shabby shuttle minivan to a distant parking lot in a safer neighborhood.
The passengers listed their favorite moments in the concert. Everyone agreed: Madiba was the highlight. One woman said the country hadn't been the same since he stepped down, and another asked if South Africa would produce another leader like Madiba.
"I think you'd have trouble finding another man like him in the world," said one man. "He's one of a kind."