Van Zandt brought together 50 artists to record the protest song "Sun City," named for a whites-only resort in the South African-controlled "independent" state Bophuthatswana that was being used to circumvent a U.N. cultural ban on artists performing in South Africa.
"At the time, it was quite courageous for the artists to be on this record. We crossed a line from social concerns to political concerns," said Van Zandt.
"Sun City" brought together artists from disparate genres of music, from Run DMC to Miles Davis, to form the Artists United Against Apartheid and record the track in October 1985.
The message -- and the music -- was not easily received.
"We hit our own apartheid on radio," Van Zandt explained. "Radio felt it was too black for white radio and too white for black radio."
Ultimately the track allowed the AUAA to hand more than a million dollars to the anti-apartheid movement. And while Van Zandt said he did not know if Mandela himself ever heard the track he hoped the the former president would have found it a worthy contribution to the fight.
"It was an honor to be on the planet at the same time as that cat," Van Zandt said.