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Honoring Nelson Mandela in song

Revered like a saint in South Africa, Nelson Mandela died at the age of 95. The anti-Apartheid leader and the movement he inspired have been the subjects of a number of musical works.

Nelson Mandela sang "Nkosi sikeleli Africa - Lord Bless Africa" even as a young boy. Written in 1897, the song became the hymn of oppressed black Africans and the liberation melody of the African National Congress, ANC, in the struggle against apartheid.

Mandela was at the forefront in overturning the state policy of racial discrimination. "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities," the charismatic ANC leader once said.

"Wenyukela - Raise Your Spirit Higher"

Since 1960, under the direction of Joseph Shabalala, the singers and musicians of the group "Ladysmith Black Mambazo" - who are friends with Mandela - have been singing untiringly of love and harmony. Lyrics such as "Wenyukela - Raise Your Spirit Higher" are exemplary of the religious singers, to whom violent conflict is anathema.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo Copyright: Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Ladysmith Black Mambazo

During the bloody feuds of apartheid in South Africa, the choral group became the voice of peace. Nowadays, Ladysmith Black Mambazo is considered part of the country's national heritage as their singing embodies the oppressed traditions of old South Africa.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo accompanied Nelson Mandela to Oslo in 1993, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize. The group also sang at his presidential inauguration in 1994.

Rolihlahla, the troublemaker

Mandela was born on July 18, 1918 in the little village of Mvezo, on the banks of the Mbashe River. His named called him "Rolihlahla," which translates into "agitator" or "troublemaker." Rolihlahla was the first in his family to learn how to read and write. In his spare time, he tended cattle and hogs.

He encountered the widespread discrimination of black people when he embarked on his study of law in Johannesburg. A ticket collector once called him a "twerp" and threw him off a street tram; his fellow students avoided him because of the color of his skin. The agitator starting waking up inside him, and the long journey to freedom began.

After a fast rise up through the ranks of the African National Congress freedom party in the 1940s and 50s, attorney and revolutionary Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island in 1964.

"Free Nelson Mandela!"

Johnny Clegg and his band Savuka sang "Asimbonanga - We Have Not Seen Him" in the years thereafter. They sang it in Zulu, the language of many townships, and of course they were singing about Mandela. Clegg, born in Johannesburg as the son of a British father and a Rhodesian mother, venerated the black leader, Mandela. And music was Clegg's weapon against apartheid.

Johnny Clegg, known as the White Zulu, performs a dance routine during a concert in Johannesburg 
Copyright: AP Photo/Denis Farrell

Johnny Clegg

His band was composed of three white and three black musicians, which was considered an affront to the racist regime that frequently forbade public performances by the band and repeatedly imprisoned its members. Ironically, Johnny Clegg was also not permitted to perform during the concert honoring Mandela's 70th birthday in London's Wembley Stadium, since the music world boycotted the apartheid regime and anyone from South Africa. Still, the concert, with its top-class musicians, was able to catapult the English band The Special AKA's song "Free Nelson Mandela!" into the international charts.

Plea for a better world

And then, after 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela was released on February 11, 1990. A massive crowd cheered the ANC leader, who appeared overcome with emotion: "I cannot put my feelings into words. I was just deeply moved by this enthusiasm," he said.

Mourners gathered outside following news of Mandela's death
(c) REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

South African mourners gathered upon news of Mandela's death

Not least due to Mandela, apartheid is a thing of the past. But his legacy is now at stake, as corruption, power struggles and incompetence paralyze South Africa. Following his death, his own words spring to mind: "Our struggle for freedom and justice was a collective effort. It is in your hands to create a better world for all who live in it."

One of the most famous anti-apartheid songs was penned by Guyanese musician Eddie Grant: "Gimme hope Jo'anna." Grant's Jo'anna was not a woman, but was a nickname for Johannesburg and represented the white apartheid regime. Grant decried the oppression of black people and invoked better times.

DW.DE