Sal Masekela Reflects on His Father’s Life-Changing Relationship with Nelson Mandela
Sal Masekela first visited South Africa when he was 19 years old. It was 1991, Apartheid was crumbling, and he was traveling in esteemed company: his father, the legendary trumpet player and political activist Hugh Masekela, who had returned only a year before after spending 30 years in exile.
For a long time, Sal had been mystified by his father’s obsession with South Africa. In the United States where Sal had lived his entire life, their family was comfortable, happy, and untouched by political persecution. Why was his father so concerned with a faraway country that had cast him out? It wasn’t until that fateful day that his family discovered a letter, stuffed inconspicuously between bills and junk mail, that Sal began to understand his father’s unwavering commitment to his homeland.
The letter was addressed to Hugh and sent from Robben Island, a prison off the coast of Cape Town. And yes, as it turns out, it was written by none other than South Africa’s most famous imprisoned activist, Nelson Mandela. Channeling his prodigious optimism, Mandela wrote that he was proud of Hugh’s work, and encouraged him to continue his activism. Electrified by the letter, the older Masekela sat down to his piano and composed “Bring Him Back Home”, a protest song that became one of the most famous musical pieces of the anti-Apartheid movement.
So when Sal Masekela arrived in South Africa—in the company of the musician responsible for “Bring Him Back Home”—the trip felt destined to be special. Shortly after landing, they drove to a private lunch that was convened in a room brimming with dignitaries. A door swung open, and Nelson Mandela, one year released from prison, strode in. To Sal’s surprise, he walked straight for the Masekelas. He addressed them with warmth and familiarity, and told Sal how much his father had talked about his career in America, and that he was proud of Sal’s work. He then welcomed him home to South Africa.
Speaking from the WORLDZ Main Stage, Sal recalled how he felt transformed by the interaction:
If it wasn’t for that experience in South Africa, I probably wouldn’t be standing on this stage here today.
He considers it a formative moment, one that helped ground his sense of self and galvanize his sense of purpose.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many anecdotes about interactions with Mandela end this way. It’s possible that his greatest attribute as a leader was his ability to lead from behind, encouraging others to cultivate their own talents which would, in turn, advance the greater cause. On what would be Mandela’s centennial, it’s useful to reflect on these lessons, and to consider how individual acts of kindness or encouragement almost never exist in a vacuum.