With or without his connection to Michael Jackson, the death of former South African president Nelson Mandela, better known to many by his tribal name of Madiba (“Nelson” was a misnomer forced upon him by racist missionaries when he was a child) is rightfully one that is being mourned all over the world. However, since this is a blog dedicated to all things MJ, I would like to take a pause to reflect on the very special relationship that these two global icons shared.
I would also like to expose and put to rest an unfortunate hoax that many fans do not seem aware of. It’s not my intent, of course, to rain on anyone’s parade. But truth is important, and I would like to celebrate the genuine friendship that Michael and Mandela shared without having it clouded by words neither ever actually said.
Mandela’s own history is well known, but I am sure for many young people today, Apartheid is just a word that they have only heard from history books, or maybe have heard their parents speak. As an American, I have to admit that in the 1980’s (a time when I was pretty much just a kid myself) I only had a vague notion of what people meant when they spoke of “Apartheid.” It was a word we heard a lot in the news, and I was aware that it was a cause that many political activists had taken up. All of the really “cool” and “hip” artists seemed to be writing songs about it, and staging concerts in united protest of it. But for many of my generation, “Sun City” was just a catchy single. Could we truly understand, from the comfort of our suburban American homes, what was happening in South Africa, where a political prisoner falsely named Nelson Mandela, a man of royal birth, sat in jail with no hope of ever seeing his family or the sun again?
But the late 80’s were strange, violent, idealistic and-ultimately-liberating times. Revolution was in the air. If the 70’s had been largely a passive decade, the 80’s were a throwback to the 60’s, when it really seemed possible that we could create world change simply by coming together and making it happen. The Soviet Union crumbled, and the Cold War was over. The Berlin Wall came down. And Apartheid, too, would become a casualty of what seemed a revolution of freedom. In the late 80’s, there was a sense that what we were witnessing was the dawn of a new golden age, where all the old, oppressive regimes would make way for a new democratic age of enlightenment and hope.
In 1990, I still didn’t yet quite understand all of the hoopla surrounding this man Nelson Mandela, or what his release from prison truly meant. I just knew that it was huge, and accepted blindly that it must be huge for a good reason.
Well, turns out there were plenty of good reasons. You can read here just some of the reasons why this was a man celebrated and, now, mourned all over the world:
One thing I have come to know about Madiba. While often celebrated as a man of peace, he nevertheless had a lion’s heart. One of the many qualities he did share in common with his “grandson” Michael was that rare combination of humbleness and meekness, coupled with a quiet yet raging and invincible courage-the kind of courage that doesn’t beat its chest or puff its feathers, but nevertheless, manages to move mountains. They both endured much and suffered much in their own ways, yet came out stronger for it.
Mandela, of course, had many celebrity friends. Michael Jackson was just one of a long list that included many of the most powerful and elite celebrities (but usually those most active in political causes or humanitarian efforts). Among his friends, Mandela counted such luminaries, world leaders, and humanitarians as Princess Diana, Bono, Stevie Wonder, Oprah Winfrey, Pope John Paul II, Tony Blair, Hillary Clinton, and too many more to mention.
Yet, for a man who could hold court with the world, there did seem to be an especial bond of affection that he held exclusively for the young man from Gary, Indiana, whom he would later call his “grandson.” Michael became more than just Mandela’s friend; he was, as Mandela himself stated in the letter read at Michael’s memorial, “family.”
This was an amusing story that was shared earlier by Dr. Patrick Treacy via Twitter:
“I was with Michael Jackson one day in my clinic in Dublin discussing a future concert we were arranging in Africa when Nelson came talking on the cell phone.
At first I thought it was a South African concert promoter and blandly spoke to him about how life was in the Cape for about five to ten minutes minutes before idly giving the phone back. Michael then just laughed and said ‘Hey, Patrick I’m really surprised to had to little to say to my grandfather ‘Mandiba’ when you had the chance to talk to him’ ‘You talk about him enough’.”–Dr. Patrick Treacy
Fans of Michael Jackson are, of course, very much aware of the long history and connection between Jackson and Mandela. Since late Thursday, when the news broke, I have come across numerous blogs featuring posts dedicated to the history of their friendship. And it seems only befitting that, just as Mandela reached out to console us and Michael’s family in 2009, the Michael Jackson estate has offered its own statement in the wake of Mandela’s passing:
“Michael Jackson was proud to call Nelson Mandela his friend. Like millions of admirers around the world Michael drew inspiration from President Mandela’s courage, his fight for human dignity and his commitment to peace. During his visits to South Africa Michael met often with President Mandela, who described Michael as “a close member of our family.” Our hearts go out to President Mandela’s family and to his beloved South Africans as they mourn their incalculable loss.”-John Branca and John McClain, co executors of the Estate of Michael Jackson.
The opening montage of Michael’s HIStory tour included references to many iconic world leaders and political figures, among them JFK, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Neil Armstrong, Ghandi, and of course Nelson Mandela. While some have viewed Michael’s constant references to such figures-and the need to associate himself among their ranks-as more proof of his grandiose megalomania, there is actually a much simpler explanation. Michael spent his entire life paying homage to the people who had influenced him. Is it so very wrong that this little boy who grew up in such humble beginnings in midwest America dreamed of becoming like his heroes? Isn’t that exactly what we teach our children, that they should strive to follow the examples of our greatest leaders? Michael was attracted to these people, not because of their power or the mass adulation they inspired, but because their idealism and accomplishments embodied those same ideals that he most valued, felt inspired by, and tried to emulate in himself. Michael wasn’t perfect, and nor were the people he often referenced. But they did inspire us to reach for the best that we can be, given our human limitations.
Michael Meets Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, South Africa to Announce The Michael & Friends-The Adventure of Humanity” Concerts:
I often say that what I most admire about Michael Jackson isn’t what he actually accomplished, or what he was. It’s what he aspired to be that I find so compelling. Michael’s dreams- his vision for the world and for what humanity could accomplish-were as limitless and vast as the sky that stretched beyond the view of his little bedroom window on 2300 Jackson Street.
Michael’s greatest heroes all seemed to share similar traits, as peace makers who nevertheless had the courage of their convictions; as “lambs” who nevertheless refused to lie down. They were men (and a few women) who won their battles through graciousness, and bore their scars with fortitude and grace. They were people about whom storms blew, without ever affecting their inner core. This is what Michael himself had to say about his friend Nelson Mandela:
“He (Mandela) became a lamb in prison. He had no bitterness, to this day saying even though he is eighty and his youth is gone—because he was in prison so long—he doesn’t regret any of it.” “He [Nelson Mandela] is sweet, very childlike.” Q: Does he like to giggle? “He [Nelson Mandela] loves children because when I went to see him I had some kids with me and people were saying the kids have to stay, but Michael Jackson can come. I said. “I’m sure Mr. Mandela wouldn’t mind seeing children. I won’t go in unless the children go too.” I remember his representatives looked at me like this [makes stern and suspicious facial expression] and they went back and then they said, “Everybody come.” The first thing Mandela did is run to the children and pick them up and hug them. I knew he was that kind of man and he loved them. He was talking to them and then he shook my hand. I knew I was right.” ~ Michael Jackson
I have to wonder if this example wasn’t at least in part what enabled Michael to get through some of his own worst trials and tribulations. Perhaps he did see himself as being on a par with his own martyred heroes. And, just perhaps, he wasn’t too far off the mark in doing so.
Certainly Mandela himself gave some hint of this in his own condolence letter to the Jackson family after Michael’s passing:
“Dear Jackson family,
It is with great sadness that we learnt of the untimely death of Michael Jackson. Michael became close to use after he started visiting and performing in South Africa regularly.
We became fond of him and he became a close member of our family. We had great admiration for his talent and that he was able to triumph over tragedy on some many occasion in his life.
Michael was a giant and a legend in the music industry and we mourn with the millions of fans worldwide. We also mourn with his family and his friends over the loss of a dear friend. He will be missed and memories cherished of him for a long time.
I don’t think we have to guess too far to know what “tragedies” he was referring to, but then again, those tragedies may run far deeper than any of us will ever know, just as the heights of those personal “triumphs” may be far greater than we will ever know. Mandela knew Michael’s heart, and there is no doubt that their bond was a genuine and profound one.
At Madiba’s Private Birthday Party, 1999:
Nevertheless, I do want to point out that one particular quote I have seen floating around, attributed to Mandela about Michael, appears to have been a hoax originally perpetuated in 2005. I am referring to this quote, which many MJ fans have been innocently sharing on social media since the news of Mandela’s death broke:
“When you are behind bars with no hope of release, you need to find strength wherever you can. Personally, I found strength in Michael Jackson.”
Like many others, my initial reaction was that it was a wonderful quote that appeared to be from Nelson Mandela on his friend Michael Jackson. But I then wanted to know the original source of this quote, and did some checking. What I made was a pretty unsettling (though not entirely shocking) discovery.
A google search for the quote led me to this site, where the story containing the alleged quote appeared in March of 2005:
Freerepublic.com is clearly identified as a satire site, and in the context of the article, it becomes apparent quickly that this is a made-up story meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek. It goes on to quote Mandela as saying that he drew courage in prison from the example set by Michael Jackson in leaving The Jackson 5 and embarking on his solo career and then, ending it by claiming he also draws strength from Martha Stewart!
But the story did not originate on this site. A link there leads to a site called Jewishworldview.com and a writer named Andy Borowitz, who appears to be the originator of the phony article.
This is what the contributor notes on that site says about Andy Borowitz:
JWR Contributor Andy Borowitz, the first-ever recipient of the National Press Club’s Award for Humor, is a former president of the Harvard Lampoon,and a regular humor columnist for Newsweek.com, The New Yorker, The New York Times and TV Guide. Recognized by Esquire magazine as one of the most powerful producers in television, he was the creator and producer of the hit TV series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and producer of the Oscar-nominated film Pleasantville.
Okay, so Borowitz, in addition to all of his other credentials, is a “humor columnist” whose specialty is writing satire.
I did some additional searching to see if I might, by some chance, be able to unearth any original interview with Mandela from which that quote might have originated. The search only led me to another mocking article from the same writer, Andy Borowitz, that was featured in the March 28, 2005 issue of Newsweek:
The Borowitz Report: Michael Jackson’s ‘Great Courage’By Andy Borowitz / March 28 2005 7:00 PM
Former South African President Nelson Mandela said today that he gained strength during his many years of imprisonment by thinking about Michael Jackson, adding that the King of Pop continues to be a source of inspiration for him today.
“When you are behind bars with no hope of release, you need to find strength wherever you can,” Mandela said in an exclusive interview with a Danish magazine. “Personally, I found strength in Michael Jackson.”
The former South African president said that while imprisoned in the 1980s, he drew emotional sustenance from following Jackson’s recording career. “It took great courage to leave the Jackson Five and go solo,” Mandela said. “I thought to myself, if he had the courage to do that, I, too, must have the will to go on.”
Even to this day, Mandela said, Michael Jackson is “a constant source of inspiration,” adding, “When I am not drawing strength from Michael Jackson, I am drawing strength from Martha Stewart.”
Jackson received kind words from another international icon today, the boxer Muhammad Ali, who told a Norwegian newspaper that he, too, draws inspiration from the platinum-selling recording artist.
“When people ask me where I get my strength from, I tell them that I look at the man Michael Jackson looks at when he looks at the man in the mirror,” the former heavyweight champion said.
Elsewhere, with enlistment levels falling, the Pentagon said it would focus its recruitment effort on people who had not read a newspaper in the past two years.
Borowitz mentions a “Danish interview” but there is no link to this source and all searches for it have only led me down a dead end path. It seems likely that, in fact, there was never any such “source” at all; that this is simply a fabricated story meant to poke fun at Michael and to mock his friendship with Mandela. In March of 2005, this would have been the height of the Arvizo trial (around the time of the infamous “Pajama Day”) and a time when mockery and satire of Michael Jackson in the press was at its unchecked height.
If anyone does know of the actual existence of this “Danish interview” I would love to know, but so far I have found nothing. And now I am finding it somewhat troubling and disturbing that so many fans are attributing a quote about Michael to Mandela that he not only never made, but that may have had its origins in a satiric article that was actually mocking their friendship. I hope I will be proven wrong, but until I see from it this actual “Danish source” and from anyone other than Andy Borowitz, I am calling hoax.
In Pretoria, South Africa, 1996:
However, allow me to just close this out by reminding you all what has always been said about small minds. Michael Jackson and Nelson Mandela did not have to prove to the world what their friendship meant, nor did they owe any explanations.
Nor did they have to “prove” what courage, grace, humility, and living your life by example meant.
When both of these men died the world stopped in its tracks and mourned, however briefly. Both accomplished more, and did more for humanity, than all of the Andy Borowitzes of the world combined. All mockery aside, it wouldn’t surprise me if Nelson Mandela found courage and inspiration in Michael, even if only through his music. Mandela was a man whose heart had not been touched by bitterness, as Michael himself noted; a man who, for all that he had been through, still loved to dance, laugh and party. Don’t believe me, just read this account from a writer who still remembers vividly the day he saw Nelson Mandela dance:
Do you think Madiba, with that much joy in his heart, ever danced to MJ? You bet your bottom dollar he did! Both men led extraordinary lives; lives that carried them from the depths of poverty and despair to the heights of world fame and adoration. Michael may have indeed dreamed big and grandiose. But how many of us, in our lifetime, will ever get to meet our heroes, let alone become as family to them? Michael, like Mandela, would get to rub shoulders with presidents and queens, with kings and popes, all while maintaining the innocence and humbleness of spirit that remained at the core of their souls. Mandela may or may not have ever actually said, in so many words, that Michael’s courage got him through those dark days in prison. But what he did say spoke so much more.
He called him his grandson. He called him family. And sometimes, as we know, kinship runs deeper than blood.
RIP Madiba. May your long, courageous journey in this life reap its reward.