Starting with Rian Malan’s “My Traitor’s Heart”, I have become a really big fan of books written by journalists. They tell the story behind the story, which is useful to anyone who has an interest in the truth about incidences in history. I have recently been immersed to a fantastically funny and candid autobiography by a BBC journalist called Michael Buerk. The book “The Road Taken” gives a very moving account of the broadcast that changed the face of Africa and resulted in a one of the greatest concerts of all time, Live Aid.
Photo taken by Mohamed Amin while in Ethiopia with Michael Buerk (1984)
Michael Buerk and his crew got permission to enter the Northern regions of Ethiopia in October 1984. The region had been devastated by a famine which the world had not before noticed or cared about. The footage taken of their days there was enough to mobilise millions in a way never before experienced. Two reports went out on the 24 and 25 October showing the real extent of the misery effecting hundreds of thousands of Ethiopia’s famine victims.
“The two reports fused the sympathy of the First World to the urgent needs of the Third World in a way that has never before happened and has never happened since. They raised the curtain of cynicism and selfishness that divides the rich of the earth from the poor. People were moved enough to believe they could do something for others in distress; tens of millions all over the planet went out and did it”.
Watching the footage was a man known as Bob Geldof, lead singer of the Irish rock band The Boomtown Rats in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Buerk refers to him as a “scruffy, foul-mouthed Irish rock musician in the middle of a career crisis”. But later he says, “He was and is a man of extraordinary sensitivity, intelligence and drive”. It was Bob Geldof who initially conceived of encouraging musicians and bands to come together for the Ethiopian cause. He founded the charity supergroup, Band Aid, who released the single, “Do they know it’s Christmas?” which became the biggest selling single in UK singles chart history* and raised substantial amounts of money for the famine victims of Ethiopia. It was also Geldof and Midge Ure, frontman of Ultravox, who organised the Live Aid concert in order to raise further relief funds.
Bob Geldof at Live Aid
Live Aid was held on the 13 July 1985 in multiple venues across the world, notably in Wembley Stadium in London, England, and John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is estimated that over 2 billion people watched the concert from over 60 countries. Artists included massive names like Elton John, The Who, David Bowie, Sting, Black Sabbath, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and Led Zeppelin. It is estimated that over £150 million was raised as a result of the concerts. Geldof received massive reward and fame after the concerts and was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and granted an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.
So what did Live Aid really represent? Buerk prefers to remain neutral on the issue although he does so for professional reasons, stating his preference to remain being seen as an impartial journalist. But you cannot help but be moved by his description of his encounter with the Ethiopia of 1984-5.
“I was upset and disturbed by everything I had seen and worried that I would never be able to convey what it was really like to be there. It is one thing to see it with your own eyes, to touch and be touch, to smell the shit, the staleness of despair and the sticky sweetness of the corpses, to have people trying to give you their dying child, to feel, so strong, the sense of personal inadequacy of being a useless spectator of a massive tragedy.”
Yet, he managed to do it well enough that, for many years (decades) after his footage was aired, a culture of giving, of using one’s power and fame to do good, commenced.
Hell on Earth
However, controversy lies at the heart of every good action. One controversy in the case of Live Aid was the claim that some of the relief funding landed up in the hands of the dictator at the time, Mengistu Haile Mariam and his army. The irony, of course, is that Mengistu was instrumental in creating what was referred to as “the closest thing to hell on earth”. The famine itself was not of his making, of course, but the extent of its misery was attributed to his draconian reign. Of course, the West was not free of fault either; some states were aware of the famine, but refused to do anything for Ethiopia because of its ruler. This is problematic and amounts to punishing a child due to the faults of its father (can we as South African’s not take heed too?).
In recent times, since becoming a politically observant individual in Africa, I have heard speak of this problem with aid. For example, in the current case, the misery of drought and famine has not been miraculously cured by the events of 1985. In fact, news reports show that Ethiopia continues to be in crisis. My own understanding of the matter of food and famine is that there is certainly enough food in the world to go around, but that African dictatorships and poor governance are denying people access to this food. The food relief was only a temporary measure, but certainly missed the mark. Ongoing war and corruption are the real threat to the people of Africa. Some say that giving aid to these countries increases the reliance of Africa on the West and fails to make the difference where it matters.
Live Aid concert 13 July 1985
Nonetheless, even though I was only a few months old when Live Aid was broadcast for the entire world to see, and made such a remarkable impact on the nature of aid, I can still appreciate the extent of its success. I just have to look to my backyard to see how the culture of using one’s talents to heal the wrongs of the world has settled quite nicely into the fabric of society. Bands continue to take up their instruments in the name of charity. In my old home town of Grahamstown, just about every gig that was played by local bands was in the name of one or another cause. In Cape Town over this period, there has been a succession of charity gigs in the name of various orphanages, animal shelters and other social organisations. It certainly says great things about musicians and leaves a lasting and happy mark on South Africa.
*To be superseded by Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind” in 1997