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.