With the passing of Nelson Mandela I share the sadness and sense of loss that not only his countrymen but the entire world is feeling.

But I feel immensely fortunate to have seen the great man in the flesh when he attended an historic music concert at Wembley Stadium on April 16 1990.

Nelson Mandela: An International Tribute for a Free South Africa was held two months after his release from prison and Mandela undoubtedly regarded it as an official international reception held in his honour.

The politics involved in organising the event were tricky to say the least and organiser in chief Tony Hollingsworth (who was behind an earlier Wembley concert to mark Mandela’s 70th birthday) delivered a coup in pulling it off.

There was a strong belief in South Africa that the previous concert had played a part in exerting pressure on the South African government to release Mandela.

But in the wake of his release some in the African National Congress felt it inappropriate for Mandela to be performing in the country where Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

She had, after all, supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and famously once referred to him as “that grubby little terrorist”.

Not surprisingly he turned down a visit to meet with Mrs Thatcher during this visit.

Mandela said he would only take part in the concert if he could talk for as long as he liked and his speech would not be edited in television coverage.

In the event he spoke for 45 minutes and, following the eight-minute standing ovation at the start, you could hear a pin drop at any point during his speech.

While a speech like that might ordinarily have seemed an oddity at a rock concert, this felt more like it was the main event and everything else was a sideshow.

It was impossible not to be overwhelmed by a feeling that you really were sharing in a truly historic moment. The world clearly thought so too and the concert was broadcast in 60 countries.

I recall being struck by how calm and peaceful Mandela was - perhaps I was expecting some fiery orator embittered by his lengthy incarceration in a South African jail.

But throughout his life perhaps the most striking thing about him was a distinct absence of bitterness. Despite the evils of the apartheid regime and his own suffering, here was a man who looked forward not back.

Nonetheless, it should not be forgotten that at that point the regime was still very much in place and Mandela urged those present to continue to press for apartheid’s abolition.

Neil Young and Lou Reed were among the artists at Wembley on April 16, 1990
Neil Young and Lou Reed were among the artists at Wembley on April 16, 1990
 

Many acts graced the stage that day, including musical heavyweights such as Lou Reed, Neil Young and Peter Gabriel. Also Chrissie Hynde, Tracy Chapman, Simple Minds, Natalie Cole, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Anita Baker.

In truth I don’t remember too much about the music, other than a spine-tinglingly rousing version of The Special AKA’s Free Nelson Mandela - surely Jerry Dammers’ finest musical moment. I’m sure the audience’s singing along could be heard south of the river.

Having been an occasional visitor to the non-stop protest outside the South African Embassy in central London and, like many students of the time a campaigner against apartheid, the concert and more importantly Mandela’s presence at it felt like closure on a somewhat sorry and sordid episode in human history.

There was of course still some considerable way to go, indeed South Africa is still striving to recover from the injustice of apartheid but Mandela’s release from prison and to a lesser extent that celebration of it in London that spring day marked a turning point that will surely go down as one of the key events in 20th century human history.