In an extraordinary move, the South African government is to present to Jerry Dammers the Order of the Companions of Oliver Tambo award for his 1984 hit Free Nelson Mandela and his campaign against the apartheid regime.
This, the government in Pretoria say, is to recognise the former Specials man “for his excellent musical contribution to the international Free Mandela Campaign and his involvement in the influential Artists Against Apartheid.”
I couldn’t agree more. While Free Nelson Mandela, as a pop song, was never going to influence the racist regime in Pretoria, or their allies in the west, it helped stir the people’s consciousness and raise awareness of what was happening in South Africa. It was a big hit in Britain and No.1 in New Zealand, three years after the anti-Springbok protests that rocked the nation. Despite being banned in South Africa, it was circulated by cassette and become a sort of anthem for the freedom movement.
Artists Against Apartheid was mainly an American musicians group but Dammers formed the British wing. In this role he helped put together the 1986 anti-apartheid concert in London which attracted about 200,000 people, and the Nelson Mandela birthday concert at Wembley Stadium two years later, massive events, both on a physical and a cultural level.
Other non-South Africans to be honoured for their contribution to the anti-aparthied struggle include Richard Attenborough, Quincy Jones, and Danny Glover, who played Nelson Mandela in a TV movie.
Dammers was the man behind the Two-Tone label and the keyboardist and primary songwriter of multi-racial act The Specials, who infused the spirit and creativity of punk with the energy of ska. After their less than amicable breakup, Dammers formed The Special Aka, best known for Free Nelson Mandela, and they left behind one album, the under-rated In The Studio, which with its dark undertones and eerie keyboards marked a radical departure from The Specials. Dammers now leads The Spatial AKA Orchestra.