In this song Jerry Dammers demands the release of Mandela, who was the leader of the African National Congress (ANC). He had been imprisoned by the South African government since 1962 on charges of sabotage and attempting to overthrow the government. Unsurprisingly this song couldn't be played freely in South Africa, however it helped install optimism within the black community there. Its success in Britain sparked an increasingly vocal campaign by the rock world to free Mandela, which culminated in the 1988 Mandela 70th birthday concert at Wembley Stadium in London, which Dammers helped organize. Prisoner no 46664 was finally released in February 1990 and became State President of South Africa in 1994.
Special A.K.A. were fronted by former Specials songwriter and keyboardist Jerry Dammers. They were an offshoot of The Specials, after Terry Hall, Neville Staples and Lynval Golding had left the ska band to form the Fun Boy Three. This was to be their only UK Top 40 hit.
Written by Special A.K.A. keyboard player Jerry Dammers, "Nelson Mandela" was the first hit song specifically about the imprisoned South African political leader and apartheid government he fought against. Mandela's cause gained traction in the early '80s as athletes and entertainers started boycotting the country. Dammers took an interest after attending an anti-apartheid concert in London in 1983, which gave him the idea for the song.
"I never knew how much impact the song would have," he told Radio Times in 2008. It was a hit around the world, and it got back into South Africa and was played at sporting events and ANC rallies - it became an anthem."
In the same Radio Times interview Dammers recalled finally meeting Mandela after a 1990 concert, which celebrated his release: "When I was introduced as the writer of 'Nelson Mandela,' he just said, 'Ah yes, very good.'"
Dammers told Uncut magazine January 2010 the story of the song: "It was a bit like the end of The Specials. When 'Nelson Mandela' came along, the band was falling to pieces. But I had this idea that I knew was really important, like 'Ghost Town.' so there was that desperation to get it down on tape, before the thing disintegrated completely. I wrote the tune to 'Nelson Mandela' before the lyrics. By that time, especially in London, rock music was dead. It was all electro-pop, hip-hop, jazz or Latin. And also, Joe Hagen had this African club at Gossip's. I was inspired by the spirit and positivity of that African music. I was trying to get in a few Latin rhythms, but also township jazz. It was a very simple melody, three notes: C, A and E. That meant the public could sing it. And then I went to Nelson Mandela's 65th birthday party at Alexandra Palace. I'd never really heard of him, to be honest. Various bands sang about him, particularly Julian Bahula. And that's where I had the idea to put this message into this tune I had hanging around."
In America, this song was titled "Free Nelson Mandela."
Speaking with CNN, Dammers said, "'Free Nelson Mandela' was effective for two reasons. It's a good pop record in that it's catchy and sounds good. And you immediately know what it's about, because the first three words are 'Free Nelson Mandela.' And secondly it had a clear message that the audience agreed with."