June 27, 2008 / 6:11 PM / 10 years ago

Will Smith kicks off Nelson Mandela birthday gig

LONDON (Reuters) - Hollywood actor Will Smith kicked off a star-studded concert on Friday to honor Nelson Mandela, whose visit to London has been overshadowed by events in Zimbabwe where widely condemned elections had just ended.

Queen, Annie Lennox, Simple Minds, Amy Winehouse and some of Africa’s top singers are among the stars set to perform before Mandela, who turns 90 next month, and nearly 50,000 fans in London’s Hyde Park.

“Peter Gabriel once said, ‘if the world could have one father the man who we could choose to be our father would be Nelson Mandela’,” Smith told a cheering crowd.

“Nelson Mandela has taught us about love and reconciliation, taught us about justice.”

The tribute to the elder African statesman coincides with disputed elections in Zimbabwe, and Mandela has been urged to speak out against President Robert Mugabe who pushed ahead with the vote despite international outcry.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai boycotted the poll due to a wave of deadly attacks on his supporters.

During his stay in Britain, Mandela has uttered just four words of criticism of Zimbabwe in a speech at a dinner — “tragic failure of leadership” — but they were enough to make headline news.

Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, officially retired from politics nine years ago, but he is still a moral authority admired the world over.


People in the crowd appeared to be at the gig more to honor Mandela than to hear the music.

“I’m here because of the man,” said Clive Jones, a 31-year-old theatre technician. “I feel he’s done so much for the world, especially with what was happening in South Africa. He is also humble and kind.”

Emmanuel Jal, a Sudanese hip-hop artist based in London who is singing on Friday, said Mandela was “unique” among African leaders. “He did not love power so much, and left it and gave it to someone else,” he told Reuters.

Mandela will be joined by a crowd of 46,664 people for the charity concert to raise funds for his HIV/AIDS organization “46664,” named after his prison number.

The event comes 20 years after a tribute gig at Wembley Stadium to honor Mandela when he was still behind bars for his stand against apartheid.

Jerry Dammers, who helped organise the 1988 concert and whose song “Free Nelson Mandela” became a banner for the anti-apartheid movement in Britain in the 1980s, will also take the stage.

One of the highlights is expected to be Winehouse, who is due to appear despite being diagnosed with a “touch of” lung condition emphysema earlier this month.

The 24-year-old has fought drug addiction and her husband is awaiting sentencing for an attack on a pub landlord in 2006 and for conspiring to pervert the course of justice.

For a timeline on Nelson Mandela, visit: here x=20080616094404.xml&tn=Mandela%20at%2090

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