Mandela is free, but another star is in purgatory

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The Independent Culture

The world has changed since 1986. But not that much. Back in the day, thousands of footsore opponents of South Africa's apartheid regime marched through south London to Clapham Common, where they settled back to enjoy a free concert to highlight their righteous cause. The event, a year after Live Aid, heralded a sea change in popular opposition to the Pretoria government. Today – two major Wembley concerts later – Nelson Mandela has been out of jail for 18 years, South Africa is putting its segregated past behind it and the former political prisoner is elevated to the status of the world's most revered statesman.

Last night, nearly 50,000 people paid £65 a head to watch veterans from that decade – Queen, Annie Lennox and Simple Minds – join African stars play for the great man's 90th birthday raising money for his Aids charity, 46664 (named after his prisoner number on Robben Island).

In 1986, the press devoted all its coverage of the event to Boy George, who was in the midst of a debilitating heroin problem. Last night, speculation focused on another star battling drink and drugs issues, which it is feared might snuff out that talent at its height. Amy Winehouse, of course. Plus ça change.

But Amy didn't let us down. The only sign of her recent tussle with emphysema appeared a dramatically runny nose. To the delight of her fans she was back to something like top form as she ripped through "Rehab" and "Valerie". The other star of the night was also at his best.

Now a slow, shuffling figure hanging on the arm of his wife, Graca Michel, he delivered an inspirational paen of hope. He described how, 20 years ago, the music had reached "across the water to support us in our prison". He said: "Now we can stand before you free," receiving the biggest cheer of the night. The biggest boo of the night, for the record, went to Victoria Beckham's imperial, video-taped message to Mr Mandela.

Jerry Dammers, a member of The Specials who crafted the Eighties anthem "Free Nelson Mandela", was there. But campaigners were surely left struggling to swallow the appearance on the bill of Queen. The group defied international opinion to play in apartheid South Africa. But that of course was a long time ago and things have moved on, haven't they?