Apartheid Rock

Despite a United Nations boycott, American musicians from Frank Sinatra to Tina Turner still play South Africa

An apartheid notice on a beach near Capetown, South Africa. Musicians are still touring here despite the ban. Credit: Keystone/Getty

South Africa, perhaps the world's most reviled nation, has been getting a free ride from the American music industry and its artists. Despite a cultural and economic boycott of the officially racist country, called for by the United Nations General Assembly, U.S. record companies have continued to export millions of dollars' worth of LPs and prerecorded tapes to South Africa; musical performers continue to reap hundreds of thousands of dollars in performance and sales royalties as a result; and a surprising number of musicians, from middle-of-the-road acts to R&B greats, have defied the boycott and toured the apartheid nation. For the most part, the recording industry and its artists, so many of whom have played a leading role in the antinuclear and women's rights movements, have been strangely silent — even in this, the UN-designated International Year of Mobilization for Sanctions against South Africa.

The UN campaign centers on artists who have played or are considering playing South Africa. Supporters of the boycott say it is crucial that prominent entertainers stay away from the apartheid nation. "The regime is already being slowly but successfully isolated," says exiled South African poet Dennis Brutus, now teaching at Amherst College. "But an attempt is being made to bring South Africa back into the international community, at the same time that there is absolutely no evidence of a desire to mend their ways." A boycott is necessary, in Brutus' words, "because we must reject all efforts to give credibility to a political system that is, in many ways, genocidal."

The boycott call is not new: the first UN resolution supporting such an action was passed in 1968. That same year, Gram Parsons dropped out of the Byrds rather than go on a tour of South Africa. But two ploys by the country have given the issue new urgency. First is the government's success in promoting Sun City, a gambling casino-cum-pleasure palace located in Bophuthatswana, a so-called black free state, set up and controlled by South Africa but without its adamantine apartheid policies. Performers who play the casino are paid sums that would make a Las Vegas talent booker blanch.

Last summer, for example, the resort bagged Frank Sinatra for a week, at an estimated price tag of $2 million. It was a stunning propaganda coup. "Sinatra's appearance at Sun City could strongly influence other entertainers who may be reluctant to perform there because they assume that Bophuthatswana is in South Africa," said Sinatra's press agent, Lee Solters. "We were entirely satisfied with the condition of civil rights, integration and the like." Earlier this year, 60 Minutes' Morley Safer echoed Solters' sentiments, saying during a broadcast that Sun City was "without the racial laws and resulting boycotts" of South Africa, and that "racial harmony" is "happening" there.

That point of view makes Hugh Masekela, a South African musician now living in exile, very angry. "Sun City's businesses and profits are all white-owned," he says. "The profits go to Pretoria [the South African capital], and the losers go back to poverty in a so-called independent Bophuthatswana, where sex across the color line, illicit in South Africa, is permissible. Sun City is an ingenious convenience for the entertainment czars — and a great public-relations victory for the regime's campaign to confuse the world and prove what great things they are doing for us."

An equally significant development has been a change in South African policy toward foreign black performers. In the past, the government sought to bar them from entering the country; in 1961, Sidney Poitier was allowed admittance only as the indentured servant of his white director. But in the late Seventies, to combat their growing political isolation, South African authorities began actively encouraging all artists, black as well as white, to play there. A list of the more than fifty entertainers who have ignored the boycott is short on rock & roll behemoths and surprisingly long on black acts: Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Tina Turner and the O'Jays, among others.

Why do they go? "American blacks who are forgotten here have the chance to go there and make some money," says Millie Jackson, who has toured South Africa twice. "Brook Benton was over there when I was. When was the last time you heard from him? Brook Benton's not going to South Africa isn't going to solve any problems."

"Given the conditions that exist in South Africa today, it is inconceivable to think that any self-respecting artist would agree to go down and perform there without feeling any kind of remorse or shame," counters Masekela. "Haven't those artists heard of the children of Soweto who were mowed down by government troops with machine guns?" Adds Elombe Brath, a member of the African Jazz-Art Society and Studios: "To perform in South Africa is to suggest reform in South Africa. In our assessment, there can be no reform: only the abolishment of the apartheid system."

The band America has endured its share of criticism for its thirty-two-date tour of South Africa, but group member Gerry Beckley, noting that the group played a benefit for a local black organization, rejects the boycott. "It's a very strange, subversive scene down there — nazism or whatever," he says. "But I don't see how sealing it off would be anything more than sweeping the dust under the carpet. We like to think that our songs and our way of life — the fact that we're Americans having a good time — might give them hope that there is an outside world where this stuff doesn't happen."

Even as politically savvy a performer as Joan Baez has mixed feelings. "I know South African whites who go back there and do what they can — there's a pretty sturdy underground — and they will often say, 'Oh, you really ought to come anyway.'" Still, the woman who proclaims that she could never perform a nonpolitical concert has a quick reaction to those who've played South Africa: "Goddamn sellouts," she calls them.

Some have suggested that asking artists not to play South Africa really amounts to doing the censor's work for him, but David Ndaba of the African National Congress disagrees. "I'm very much aware of the positive role of music," he says. "But any music with a message is banned in South Africa. In 1976, I was arrested in my dormitory at the University of Natal for having a Bob Marley record." The LP, Rastaman Vibration, had been banned by the authorities after being on sale only a short time.

One artist who's had more than her share of run-ins with the ubiquitous censor is, not surprisingly, Millie Jackson. "The first time I was there, they said I had to take out shit, ass, and God, or any reference to the Almighty. So I used to say, 'We'll have no bowel movements up here. no donkeys and no speaking to the man upstairs. But you can fuck all you want to!'

"You have to understand that they're not just backward racially, they're just backward, period. For example, they gave this man a fine because his dog was immoral in the street. How are you gonna tell your dog when he goes for a walk, 'Don't get any'? That tells you how they think."

Jackson responds with characteristic forthrightness to those who criticize her touring South Africa. "If I thought what I was doing was hurting what they were fighting for, I wouldn't go. But I have to believe what I see. I just can't conceive of anyone going there, seeing the look on the people's faces and saying not to go. If the people didn't want us there, they wouldn't come to see the shows. And if nobody came to see the shows, no promoter would pay for the band."

But according to Masekela, promoters are part of the problem. "All of the leading concert promoters and certainly all of the record companies are run and owned by white businessmen, all of whom have made their money through apartheid," he says. "Visiting artists who close their eyes to what is happening just to make a lot of blood money seldom, if ever, offer any aid."

And that money would not appear to be coming from the pockets of the black majority. The average per-capita income of whites is twelve times that of the average black, according to a recently published UN study. In 1980, more than sixty percent of the black population subsisted on an income of less than $ 152 a month per family, the official poverty level. With records and tapes going for upward of eight dollars a pop, and ticket prices for concerts in the ten-dollar range, the question of whether or not there is mixed seating at concerts would appear to be largely moot. "For literally tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars, many popular artists have become cultural mercenaries, unwittingly aiding Pretoria's propaganda scheme," Brath asserts.

It's not only musicians and South African entrepreneurs who are raking in the cash; the American record industry has been reaping a bonanza of its own in South Africa over the past few years. In 1980, the latest year for which figures are available, U.S. companies exported $3.8 million worth of LPs, singles and prerecorded tapes to the country. The market for product continues to grow, sparked by a nearly doubled demand for cassettes. And the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) reports that it paid more than $262,000 in royalties to its member artists for performances in South Africa over the same time period.

Record-industry spokesmen were not available for comment. Some observers criticize the boycotters' focus on musical entertainers; the record industry is far from the only U.S. business with substantial interest in South Africa. And while the UN General Assembly has passed a resolution calling for a total economic boycott, it is only binding on member nations if ratified by the Security Council. The United States vetoed just such a resolution in April 1981. But the boycott proponents say the record industry is crucial because of its high visibility in the international sphere, and because of the propaganda benefits gained by the government whenever people begin to view South Africa as just another country. "It is necessary to isolate the racist, fascist regime," says Brath. "You show me another country where it says in the constitution that only whites can vote," adds Ndaga.

Nevertheless, it's highly unlikely that companies will withdraw completely from South Africa or that artists will ask that their records not be sold there. Is there a way that musicians and/or their labels can market their music in South Africa and yet make an effective contribution toward ending the apartheid system?

Yes, says John Illsley. Illsley is the bassist for Dire Straits, a group that recently donated all South African royalties ($15,000) from its first LP, a Number One hit there, to Amnesty International. "We decided as a band that we should make some gesture to the political situation over there and try to help in some way. And Amnesty International is the best group around."

Illsley feels that giving royalties is even more effective than playing a benefit concert. "I just read about the Bangladesh money getting out after eight years, and I said to myself, 'This thing is just crazy.' The best intentions in the world get completely fucked over by the system."

Dire Straits remains the only major band to make such a commitment. "You can't ignore the fact that when you're working in rock & roll, you're working in a political framework. You have to stand up and say, 'We don't like what's going on over there.' It's okay for governments to exchange rhetoric about the situation — but in order to do something effective, you have to put your money where your mouth is."