Free Nelson Mandela

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This article is about the song. For the sculpture, see Free Nelson Mandela (sculpture).
"Nelson Mandela"
Single by The Special A.K.A.
from the album In the Studio
B-side Break Down The Door!
Released 5 March 1984
Format 7", 12"
Genre Ska
Length 4:12
Label 2 Tone CHS TT26
Writer(s) Jerry Dammers
Producer(s) Elvis Costello
The Special A.K.A. singles chronology
"Racist Friend"
"Free Nelson Mandela"
"What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend"

"Nelson Mandela" (known in some versions as "Free Nelson Mandela") is a song written by British musician Jerry Dammers and performed by band the Special A.K.A. – with lead vocal by Stan Campbell – released on the single "Nelson Mandela"/"Break Down The Door" in 1984 as a protest against the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela by the apartheid South African government. The backing vocals were performed by Molly and Polly Jackson, two girls the band's drummer John Bradbury had "met in a bar in Camden", while the chorus was performed by session singers including Claudia Fontaine and Caron Wheeler, who later went on to appear with Soul II Soul.[1] Unlike most protest songs, the track is upbeat and celebratory, drawing on musical influences from South Africa. The song peaked at number nine on the UK Singles Chart and was immensely popular in Africa.

In December 2013, following the news of Nelson Mandela's death, the single re-entered at number 96 on the UK Singles Chart.


Dammers told the Radio Times: "I knew very little about Mandela until I went to an anti-apartheid concert in London in 1983, which gave me the idea for 'Nelson Mandela'. I never knew how much impact the song would have; 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."[2]

Stan Campbell left the band right after the recording of the song and the release of the video for the song, and had to be persuaded to rejoin briefly for two live appearances on the BBC TV show Top of the Pops in 1984.[citation needed] Following those appearances, Campbell left for good.

In 1984 the students' union at Wadham College, Oxford, passed a motion to end every college "bop" (dance) with the song. The tradition continues to this day.

A Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute remake released in 1988 featured Elvis Costello, Dave Wakeling, Ranking Roger and Lynval Golding on backing vocals.[citation needed]

At the Nelson Mandela 90th Birthday Tribute in London's Hyde Park in June 2008, the song was performed as the show's finale, with Amy Winehouse on lead vocals. However, careful listening to the soundtrack revealed that, instead of "Free Nelson Mandela", she at times sang "Free Blakey, My Fella" (a reference to her husband, Blake Fielder-Civil, a former drug dealer imprisoned for assault).[3][4] The song was featured on Peter Kay's spoof television programme Britain's Got the Pop Factor. In 2010, the New Statesman listed it as one of the "Top 20 Political Songs".[5]

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band opened with the song in January 2014, at the Bellville Velodrome in Cape Town, South Africa,[6] in the band's first ever concert in South Africa, which took place just six weeks after Mandela's death. Springsteen later dedicated "We Are Alive" to Mandela.

Track listing[edit]

1984 recording[edit]

  • CHS TT26 7"[7]
  1. "Nelson Mandela" (Dammers) – 4:12
  2. "Break Down The Door!" (Dammers, Campbell, Bradbury) – 3:48
  • CHS TT1226 12"[8]
  1. "Nelson Mandela (Extended Version)" (Dammers) – 4:34
  2. "Break Down The Door! (Extended Version)" (Dammers, Campbell, Bradbury) – 5:01
  • Chrysalis 12" 4V9 42793 – American Version
  1. "Free Nelson Mandela (Club Mix)" (Dammers) – 6:28
  2. "Free Nelson Mandela (Instrumental Mix)" (Dammers) – 4:30
  3. "Free Nelson Mandela (LP Version)" (Dammers) – 4:07

1988 recording[edit]

  • Tone FNM1 7" (70th Birthday Remake)
  1. "Free Nelson Mandela (70th Birthday Remake)" (Dammers)
  2. "Nelson Mandela (Original Version)" (Dammers)
  • Tone FNMX1 12" (70th Birthday Remake)[9]
  1. "Free Nelson Mandela (The Whole World is Watching Dance Mix)" (Dammers)
  2. "Nelson Mandela (Original Version)" (Dammers)


1984 recording[edit]

1988 recording[edit]

  • Jerry Dammers, Tom Fredrickes – Producer
  • Ndonda Khuze – Lead Vocals
  • Jerry Dammers – Bass Program, Drum Program, Keyboards
  • Rhythm Doctor – Scratches
  • Jonas Gwangwa – Trombone
  • Betty Boo Hlelea, Julia Mathunjwa, Pinise Saul – Backing Vocals


Chart (1984) Peak
Belgium (Ultratop 50 Flanders)[10] 8
Irish Singles (IRMA)[11] 6
Netherlands (Single Top 100)[12] 9
New Zealand (Recorded Music NZ)[13] 1
UK Singles (Official Charts Company)[14] 9
Chart (1988) Peak
UK Singles (Official Charts Company)[15] 93
Chart (2013) Peak
UK Singles (Official Charts Company) 96