Jamaica Celebrates Mandela with Distinction and Song
By Jennifer Ryan V9#7 1991
Amandla! The deep-throated roar of the crowd in Kingston’s jam-packed National Stadium reached and rattled the rafters of heaven. As the poignant strains melted into the thunder of myriad voices, Nelson and Winnie Mandela stood straight, tall and proud, fists clenched in the traditional salute to freedom. The Mother and the Father had returned home. The Children wept with joy
For 10 days, newspapers, radio and television had been trumpeting the news to Jamaica’s masses. The Mandela’s were coming! The dream about to be fulfilled. Not since the visit of his Imperial Majesty Emperor Haile Selassie, in 1966, had an event of such momentous import occurred. Unnatural mysticism filled the air since it appeared as though the Mandela’s would actually set foot on Jamaican soil on July 23, the birthday of His Majesty. [Update: The Mandela’s arrived July 24 and stayed 24 hours]
With efficiency and speed, a massive cultural tribute was arranged. Willie Stewart of Third World spearheaded the artistic gathering. Third World donated their equipment, and a host of luminaries and lesser stellar bodies worked tirelessly to ensure the venture’s success. History was in the making. Responding en masse, over 150 individual artists and groups signed up to chant their praise songs for the man who symbolized the triumph of good over evil in our time.
“…And that is where the rumblings commenced that would culminate in tragedy later that evening.”
By noon, the crowds had already begun flocking to the arena, kept abreast of the progress of the motorcade from the moment the giant Cuban Ilyushin turbojet touched down at the Norman Manley Airport around 9:00 in the morning of a brilliant day. No one had any excuse for not knowing the magnitude of this happening, and its significance to the Jamaican people, or their determination to see their hero in the flesh. And that is where the rumblings commenced that would culminate in tragedy later that evening.
“Welcome home, Mr. Mandela, welcome home,” the sweet piercing voice of Carlene Davis pealed through the crowd as the massive stage stirred to life. That afternoon and evening, practically every song that had been written for and about Nelson and Winnie Mandela was performed. Jimmy Cliff and Freddie McGregor flew in, especially for the Tribute. Third World, Judy Mowatt, Papa San, Cutty Ranks, Oku Onoura, Mutabaruka, Chalice, Macka B, more singers, dancers, chanters, drummers, rappers, and toasters all filed across the stage.
Oku Onoura expressed his emotions: “I am of the opinion that Mandela is not really free because South Africa is still in captivity… I don’t see him as a man as such, but as a message… a living message. Now is the time for us to examine what is happening in the world because of this division, this inner fighting, this racism, this economic exploitation.”
From the moment of the Mandela’s arrival, the establishment (political, academic and cultural) had co-opted the proceedings. Black consciousness proponents expressed their fears that the “ordinary” Jamaican would be left out in the cold. That was the reason for this free massive cultural program. This was the people’s moment of deliverance, the sufferers’ reward, the time for the real revolutionaries.
“Suddenly a thunderous roar rent the night sky and white doves fluttered through the lights like dust in a moonbeam. Royalty had arrived…”
As darkness descended, anticipation and tension swelled. Suddenly a thunderous roar rent the night sky and white doves fluttered through the lights like dust in a moonbeam. Royalty had arrived. Standing erect in an open Jeep, circumnavigating the track, Nelson Mandela, as tall and strong as a young oak tree, and Winnie Mandela, resplendent in a royal maroon and gold traditional African dress, greeted the cheering, undulating throng, and shone their own inner light upon the masses of people.
Moments later that fragile and tenuous unity was shattered by gunfire. An M-16 automatic weapon was fired by an undisciplined policeman into the crowd surging forward, flooding the field, which moments before had been peopled by the privileged few that the masses were accustomed to seeing – always in the front while they stood behind the barricades.
It was as impossible to prevent that flood of people at that moment as it would be to prevent the pull of the tides. The police were unprepared and reacted in the characteristic fashion of South African police at the funerals of other apartheid victims. Shades of Steve Biko, memories of Griffith and Victoria Mxenge, remembrances of Ruth First. But this was not Johannesburg. This was Kingston, Jamaica.
Nothing can eradicate the glory and shame of that moment in Jamaica’s history. Let us pray that all involved will recognize their own role in the triumph and the tragedy and adjust accordingly.
P.S. During Mandela’s 24-hour visit, he was bestowed with an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Univ. of West Indies (UWI) during his visit in July 1991.
Watch Carlene Davis’ “Thank you, Mr. Mandela” here or on YouTube
PPS: Here’s an interesting Mandela review of his time in Kingston, 1991, by UPI reporter John Otis.