Category Archives: South Africa

What Happened to the 80’s Anti-Apartheid Dream?

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You got to say I, I, I
Ain’t gonna play Sun City
I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City

Steven Van Zandt and a multiracial supergroup, Artists United Against Apartheid, created the anti-apartheid rallying cry heard around the world which played a role in turning public opinion against South Africa’s regime of racial segregation and towards full political enfranchisement for the black majority of South Africa. 

Artists United Against Apartheid was Van Zandt’s brainchild, and followed the pattern of other star-studded affairs by attracting industry heavyweights from across the music spectrum. It also distinguished itself by being tilted ever so slightly towards the edgier end of the pop spectrum by including jazz, rap and punk rockers.

As much as I might be inclined to view Macklemore’s loathsome preachiness as a phenomenon unique to our Age of Multiculturalism and Social Justice, he pales in comparison to the stadium level, globe spanning virtue signalling which occurred throughout the 80’s.  Pop music has always been a vehicle for political protest and social commentary, but the particular brand of “racial justice” grandstanding which is Macklemore’s stock in trade definitely had antecedents in the glossy megaconglomerations of the 1980’s.

Though USA for Africa, Band Aid and Live Aid captured the attention of the masses and drew widespread attention to the plight of starvation in Africa, Artists United Against Apartheid was unique in that it was a protest against the de Klerk regime, an organized boycott of the Sun City resort and a call for economic sanctions against South Africa.  While I can appreciate that the track and the project was animated by a genuine spirit of human goodwill and brotherhood, I think it’s worth taking a look of the song’s allegedly “apolitical” message and the quality of life for post-apartheid South Africans in light of recent current events in South Africa.

On the surface, the political situation in South Africa cried out for change and justice.  The repressions and abuses of the South African National Party and the facts behind the construction of the Sun City resort created a perfect subject for a protest track. State enforced segregation, violent crackdowns, and mass relocations were among the list of human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime.  Add Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement”, and the standard narrative of the white supremacist conspiracy of capitalist state power writes itself. 

What’s more difficult to appreciate and less frequently discussed is that there was a sharp competition of economic ideas between the nascent ANC and the various militant African nationalist factions vying for political power and the minority National Party.

By his own account, Van Zandt sought the cooperation of militant group, AZAPO; a group which not only espoused socialist political beliefs, but were willing to use violence to achieve their political ambitions.  Van Zandt apparently had to dissuade them from targeting Paul Simon for assassination.

Listen, this is not gonna help anybody if you knock off Paul Simon. Trust me on this, alright? Let’s put that aside for the moment. Give me a year or so, you know, six months.

Van Zandt goes on to recount his disagreement with Simon over Mandela’s own political views. Van Zandt displays a typical leftist bellicosity towards Simon and dismisses his allegation simply because he cited Henry Kissinger as the source of his information.  But neither Kissinger’s or Simon’s claim was without foundations in fact. Mandela may not have been a communist, but he sure sounds like one.  

Today I am attracted by the idea of a classless society, an attraction which springs in part from Marxist reading and, in part, from my admiration of the structure and organization of early African societies in this country.

His association with the South African Communist Party wasn’t exactly a secret either.  While it wasn’t necessarily a carbon copy of the Communist Manifesto, the Freedom Charter was a solidly socialist program and became the guiding document of the ANC.  In his legendary 1964 Rivonia Trial speech, Mandela himself acknowledges as much.

Under the Freedom Charter, nationalization would take place in an economy based on private enterprise.

So what does this have to do with the “Sun City” track itself?

When Rolling Stone ranked “Sun City” as 100th greatest song of the 1980’s, Bono describes the message of the track in the following manner.

This is apolitical. It doesn’t matter what side you’re on — this is common sense.

See? It’s just “common sense.” But the lyrics are pretty explicit about the nature of the injustice in South Africa.

23 million can’t vote
‘Cause they’re black
We’re stabbing our brothers
And sisters in the back

Van Zandt was equally explicit about the call for economic boycott.

I thought in order to change the system, we need to enforce this cultural boycott as a means of getting to the economic boycott, which is really where the action is.

Despite winning the battle of public opinion, witnessing the release and election of Nelson Mandela, Van Zandt affected a phony posture of humility and declined to attend his inauguration and directs blame towards the Reagan administration for their alleged support of the de Klerk regime. 

Social justice warriors, artists and politicians alike agitated for economic sanctions, congratulated themselves for their moral righteousness, and went on to systematically ignore the consequences of these policies on South Africa’s already fragile economy. An economic contraction that would affect tax revenues and purchasing power for a population which depended heavily on redistribution.

One effect of this capital outflow has been a dramatic decline in the international exchange rate of the rand.  This means that imports are increasingly expensive.  It has also helped fuel South Africa’s inflation rate, which at 12-15% per year, is much higher than its major trading partners.

All of which brings us to the present. 

Longtime ANC veteran and current president, Jacob Zuma was charged with raiding the public treasury to fund improvements to his home to the tune of 246 million rand, or about $16.7 million at current exchange rates.

Where is the international condemnation of Zuma from artists?

Van Zandt and countless others agitated for universal suffrage and equal representation in the South African government, but has this made a material difference on the quality of life in South Africa?

By any objective measure, the results are negligible and have perhaps deteriorated further since the demise of apartheid.

Unemployment has remained stuck above 20% for years and certainly hasn’t improved since Mandela and the ANC came to power.  Few black children are raised by both parentsEducational performance is consistently dismalViolent crime persists, and a minority of taxpayers are subsidizing one of the world’s biggest welfare states.  Loose monetary policy has fueled the same speculative bubble in South Africa as it has throughout the developed world.  Politically motivated violence is a common feature of post-apartheid South Africa.

Everyone involved in AUAA was apparently so focused on the attainment of political power, but placed no emphasis on the necessity of economic development.  Even Bono has acknowledged that recently

But their hearts were in the right place, so why get so incensed over a pop track?

Perhaps. I would feel a little bit more charitable towards this effort if it was a one-time phenomenon, but this type of “racial justice” activism was at the very least, an early template for virtually every social justice campaign you can name.

Nowadays, if there anythng done or said that has the slightest perceived hint of a discriminatory attitude, the calls for retribution and censure from the social justice crowd is swift and immediate. With an equal disregard for economic consequences.  All that apparently matters is that egos are satiated by upholding the virtues of Social Justice prescribed by its self-appointed gatekeepers. 

But what about the track itself?

It’s pretty good.  It’s a stylistic hybrid that is a reflection of the people who recorded it; a hip-hop/Afropop flavored rave up with a fist pumping chorus.  It is propelled by its sense of righteous indignation so effectively, you can almost ignore its guilt tripping preachiness.  It doesn’t even get sunk by Lou Reed’s pretentious affectation in his laughable cameo. 

I do not doubt that Steve Van Zandt and the artists who contributed to the AUAA project had the best of intentions.  Unfortunately, we now live in a world where good intentions are often all that’s required with little or no attention given to the political consequences of good intentions. 

The standard narrative that the Reagan administration’s support for the de Klerk regime was animated by racism doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. Not that anyone on the Left would be that charitable towards a conservative, but anti-communist sentiment was white hot during the 80’s, and even if the fears of communist global expansion were exaggerated, I don’t begrudge Reagan for fearing the rise of another socialist regime in South Africa.  Besides, if that criticism is going to be levelled at Reagan, then it should be made of his predecessors as well.

I also do not begrudge AUAA for making a bold political statement.  In fact, I would prefer to see more artists express their political convictions with such fervor.  Of all the realms of real economic cooperation, music and art is perhaps the one sphere of human activity which allows us to experience and appreciate our shared humanity and sense of purpose.  But if you are going to make a political statement like “Sun City”, don’t turn a blind eye to the consequences of your advocacy. Most of all, make sure you’re applying your criticism consistently and directing a comparable level of indignation towards the black politicians who abused their hard won political power.