Bono Pens Essay on Nelson Mandela: 'He Could Charm the Birds Off the Trees'


Nelson Mandela and Bono are pictured after meeting at Mandela's home in Johannesburg on May 25, 2002.

"As an activist I have pretty much been doing what Nelson Mandela tells me since I was a teenager." Bono's essay on Nelson Mandela, published by Time mere minutes after news of the South African leader's death on Thursday, is filled with reason upon reason why the U2 frontman has spent the better part of 34 years as a follower.

In the 1051-word piece, titled "The Man Who Could Not Cry," Bono calls Mandela a "forceful presence" in his life since 1979, when he says U2 made its first stand against apartheid, a system of de facto racial segregation practiced for decades in South Africa. "Irish people related all too easily to the subjugation of ethnic majorities," he writes. "From our point of view, the question as to how bloody South Africa would have to get on its long road to freedom was not abstract."

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Bono lauds his friend's "deft maneuvering" as South Africa's leader, which included -- but was of course not limited to -- battling the AIDS epidemic and extreme poverty around the globe. "It certainly fell to Mandela to be great," he writes, rattling off advancements in access to AIDS meds and decreasing child deaths.

"Without Mandela, would Africa be experiencing its best decade of growth and poverty reduction? His indispensability can't be proved with math and metrics, but I know what I believe…"

He was a "hardheaded realist"… someone whose "principles and pragmatism were not foes"… an "idealist without -naiveté"… a "compromiser without being compromised" and many more lyrical plaudits from the rock hall of famer.

Bono also talks about the humor and humility of Madiba, Mandela's clan name, and recalls a funny story about confronting the leader about accepting money and fellowship from former foes:

"He could charm the birds off the trees—and cash right out of wallets. He told me once how Margaret Thatcher had personally donated £20,000 to his foundation. "How did you do that?" I gasped. The Iron Lady, who was famously frugal, kept a tight grip on her purse. "I asked," he said with a laugh. "You'll never get what you want if you don't ask." Then he lowered his voice conspiratorially and said her donation had nauseated some of his cohorts. "Didn't she try to squash our movement?" they complained. His response: "Didn't De Klerk crush our people like flies? And I'm having tea with him next week … He'll be getting the bill." (On other occasions, I heard Mandela praise the courage of F.W. de Klerk, the last President of apartheid South Africa, who had his own prison to escape: the prejudice of his upbringing. We should not forget his role in this historic drama).

He also correctly points out that Mandela was friends with business magnate Sol Kerzner, whose Sun City resort in South Africa was the target of an anti-Apartheid group of rock stars led by Steven Van Zandt called Artists United Against Apartheid. Bono's U2 was one of the artists that answered Van Zandt's call to action against Kerzner's resort.

Bono closes his essay with a story calling back to the article's title -- referencing Madiba's inability to shed tears. "Laughter, not tears, was Madiba’s preferred way -- except on one occasion when I saw him almost choke up," he recalls.

"It was on Robben Island, in the courtyard outside the cell in which he had spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. He was explaining why he’d decided to use his inmate’s number, 46664, to rally a response to the AIDS pandemic claiming so many African lives. One of his cellmates told me that the price Mandela paid for working in the limestone mine was not bitterness or even the blindness that can result from being around the bright white reflection day after day. Mandela could still see, but the dust damage to his tear ducts had left him unable to cry."

Bono adds, "For all this man’s farsightedness and vision, he could not produce tears in a moment of self-doubt or grief. He had surgery in 1994 to put this right. Now, he could cry. Today, we can."


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