Johnny Clegg and the Stalinists

Andrew Donaldson writes on the perversities of the ANC's cultural boycott of the 1980s



THE eulogies and accolades have been pouring in, but little has been said of one of the bitter ironies of Johnny Clegg’s career: the singer, who died this week after a long struggle with pancreatic cancer, was barred by the British Musicians’ Union from performing at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert in London.

This was despite entreaties from the ANC itself that Clegg and his band, Savuka, be allowed to perform. Winnie Mandela, in particular, had reportedly pointed to Clegg’s long history of non-racialism and cited the fact that his international hit, Asimbonanga, was a heart-felt tribute to her jailed husband. [1]

The union wouldn’t budge. Its hardline stance effectively denied Clegg a massive global audience; the Mandela concert, dubbed “Freedomfest”, was broadcast live on June 11, 1988, to 67 countries around the world and was seen by an estimated 600 million viewers. It’s a moot point what effect this may have had on his career in the long term, but consider this: before her appearance at the concert, Tracey Chapman’s debut album sold some 250 000 copies; in the fortnight afterwards, it sold an estimated two million. 

In any event, the decision must have stung Clegg. This was not his first run-in with the BMU. Some years earlier, Juluka, the group he had formed with long-time friend and musical partner Sipho Mchunu, embarked on their first tour abroad, on the back of their 1982 release, Scatterlings

While they did well in Europe, particularly France, their reception in the UK was disappointing. The English music press, in particular, had no idea what to make of Juluka. They were otherworldly, beyond the cultural ken of London’s hacks; they dressed in tribal bits and bobs, and their music was at such odds with the contemporary pop scene that one report could do no more than complain about Clegg’s unfashionable beard.

Then the BMU discovered the group had fallen foul of the UN-endorsed South African cultural boycott. Clegg had, apparently, performed in South Africa…

Born in the UK and, as a holder of a British passport, Clegg was able to work outside SA. But, as a British citizen, he needed to be a BMU member to perform in the UK. Once he had joined up, though, his name duly appeared on the UN Centre Against Apartheid’s register of individuals and groups who had violated the cultural boycott, and he was duly expelled from the BMU. He was not the only South African performer to have been put through this particularly Orwellian wringer. 

Besides this, Clegg’s work was not particularly liked by some sections of the anti-apartheid movement who regarded his “crossover” hybridisation of Zulu maskanditraditions and Celtic folk-rock as a passing cultural distraction, an aberration even, in the struggle for black nationalism. As Mabi Thobajane, a percussionist with Afro-jazz group Sakhile, once crassly remarked of Clegg’s work: “We can do this music thing on our own with a pure black African race.” [2]

The vast majority of the artists who performed at Wembley for the Mandela birthday concert were either British or American. The handful of South African acts on the bill included exiles like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Jonas Gwangwa and Jonathan Butler. Others, like Mahlathini, the Mahotella Queens and Amampondo, were based in South Africa and appeared to have been given a “pass” to perform in London. 

They were not, in other words, affected by the boycott. There were no white South African performers. Masekela later complained that the concert was “more of a showcase for top British groups than it had to do with Nelson Mandela’s birthday”. [3]

The proverbial curate’s egg, the cultural boycott was an effective propaganda component in the strategy to isolate the apartheid regime but it was ultimately counter-productive, anti-intellectual and extremely damaging, with targets seemingly selected out of spite and personal malice with often farcical results. Simply put, the boycott prevented a free-flowing exchange of ideas, stifled interaction and debate, ushered in an era of cultural cringe and entrenched the white laager mentality.

Moreover, and much like the academic boycott, it granted the exiled ANC leadership effective control over the hearts and minds of the country. The “sole authentic” representatives of the oppressed masses were half a world away, “swined and dined”, if I may put it thus, in swinging London, and they alone called the tune the masses would dance to.

* * *

THE call for a cultural boycott was first made in 1954 by Trevor Huddleston, the Anglican priest based in Sophiatown who was instrumental in launching Masekela’s career as a trumpeter. After much campaigning, the United Nations formally adopted a resolution in 1969 calling on all states and organisations “to suspend cultural, educational, sports and other exchanges with the racist regime and with organisations and institutions in South Africa which practice apartheid”.

The UN went a step further in 1983 and set up its Centre Against Apartheid, which began compiling its register of offending artists who had performed in South Africa. 

The centre was soon accused of practicing censorship, of endangering academic freedom, of denying anti-apartheid artists contact with their counterparts in the West and exposure to Western audiences, and of refusing black South Africans access to entertainment that may encourage or bolster them in their struggle for liberty and freedom. In short, its critics said, the register was nothing more than a McCarthyist blacklist. 

But, if that was the case, it was an absurdly ineffectual blacklist. By January 1985, the register had more than 400 entries. Most of the big stars named — including Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, Queen, Liza Minelli, Shirley Bassey, Dolly Parton and Cliff Richard — had all performed at Sun City, and disingenuously claimed the venue was not in South Africa but in the independent homeland of Bophutatswana; they had therefore not violated the boycott. 

Some grovelling apologies followed, but none of their careers suffered as a result of breaking the boycott. [4]

At the other end of the pay scale was the Male Voice Choir of Wales. They had defiantly toured South Africa twice, in October 1981 and again in February 1983, directly after protest action by Welsh activists had halted tours by other choirs. The UN was however thwarted in its efforts to identify individual choristers. “All (69) members of the Welsh choir registered in South African hotels as ‘Jones’,” it was reported.

It was a shambles. Clearly a more rigorous approach was needed. Enter Dali Tambo, struggle brat and self-appointed cultural commissar. As the son of ANC president Oliver Tambo, he was in a unique position to hold sway over the artistic affairs of the country he’d left as a toddler in his parents’ arms, and he duly approached former Specials/Special AKA bandleader Jerry Dammers to form Artists Against Apartheid, a musicians’ pressure group. 

Dammers was the ideal candidate for the job. A pivotal figure in the UK’s late 1970s ska revival scene, he’d composed and recorded the rousing Free Nelson Mandela with the Special AKA, and the song cracked the British Top Ten in March 1984. [5] 

By the time of AAA’s formal launch in 1986, the Special AKA had disbanded. But no matter, the legendary American entertainer Harry Belafonte was on board— he was the star guest at the opening party — as were a growing number of prominent British artists and celebrities that would include Bob Geldof, Elvis Costello, Billy Bragg, Sting, the Pogues, Paul Weller and U2 frontman, Bono. 

Dammers, a man with time on his hands now that his band had broken up, had drawn up a draft document for artists to present to their record labels, which he handed out to musicians at the AAA launch. It demanded the insertion of a clause in their contracts ensuring that their music would not be sold in South Africa.

The document was a noble gesture, but one that most record company bosses quietly ignored. Some years later, in Johannesburg, Geldof would tell me he was amazed that South Africans knew the words of I Don’t Like Mondays, the hit he’d written with his group, the Boomtown Rats. He simply refused to believe his records were freely available in the country — not as bootlegs or imports, but pressed and issued locally. Had he not, after all, expressly forbidden the release of his music in South Africa?

But, back at the launch party in 1986, there was much optimism about the AAA and its objectives. As an enthusiastic Dammers told guests, “If there was no music, no films, and no TV from the West, apartheid wouldn’t last more than a few months.” In June that year, AAA successfully staged its first concert, on London’s Clapham Common. The crowds who had gathered to hear, among others, Masekela, Bragg, Costello and the Style Council, were addressed by Trevor Huddleston, who marvelled at the gathering momentum of the cultural boycott he had first called for more than 30 years earlier.

A few months later, though, Dali Tambo and the AAA would be undone by the row over Graceland, the album by the American singer-songwriter Paul Simon. It was the beginning of the end for the UN boycott.

* * *

MUCH has been written about the making of the Graceland album, and how a tape of township music had inspired Paul Simon, whose career was then in the doldrums, to travel to Johannesburg in February 1985 and work with a number of South African artists. 

Technically, Simon wasn’t violating the boycott, which specifically concerned itself with “live performances” and not recording sessions — which was whereGraceland’s infectious spirit was born. 

The early sessions were chaotic, an auditioning process in which various local acts trooped in and jammed. They were paid well for their time, reportedly triple the standard session rate. Simon eventually identified a core group he would work with, which amounted to a veritable Who’s Who of SA musical heavyweights: among them Ray Phiri, Bakihti Kumalo, the Gaza Sisters, Barney Rachabane and, most notably, Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

Once that was accomplished, Simon then worked on the songs he’d record. Five of the songs were co-writes with South African composers. While the album was sonically “African”, Simon’s lyrics were expressly not, and were instead much in keeping with his customarily idiosyncratic “New Yorker” persona with their seemingly fractured, first person narratives.

Unforgivably, at least as far as some activists were concerned, none of the songs referenced the “situation” in South Africa. The fact that Graceland, released in August 1986, was an instant smash hit the world over added further grist to the mill. As far as Jerry Dammers and Dali Tambo were concerned, Simon had certainly violated the spirit of the boycott and they launched an aggressive campaign against the singer. At their behest, the ANC condemned the album.

What specifically angered Tambo and Dammers was that, prior to working on the album, Simon had approached Harry Belafonte about working in South Africa. Belafonte told him to speak to the ANC first, advice which Simon promptly ignored. Declaring his rights to artistic freedom, he later told a press conference: “I didn’t ask the permission of the ANC, I didn’t ask the permission of Chief Buthelezi, or Desmond Tutu, or the Pretoria government … I did not set out to make a political statement.” 

The row deepened, but with his album topping the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, it became imperative that Simon tour Graceland. He put together a revue that included the musicians who’d worked on the album and, rather strategically, the exiled performers Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, both outspoken ANC supporters. 

Furious negotiations about the tour took place behind the scenes, especially after the UN withdrew Simon’s name from its cultural boycott “blacklist”. Oliver Tambo was particularly concerned that a hardline stance against a popular entertainer who had successfully championed the music of black South Africa would backfire and further embarrass the organisation; he reportedly withdrew the ANC’s condemnation and gave the 1987 tour its blessing.

Dali Tambo, however, would insist that his father and the ANC did no such thing and continued to campaign against the tour, which got an indignant reception from the AAA when it arrived in London. The organisation released an open letter to Simon shortly before he took the stage at the Royal Albert Hall, calling on him to apologise for claiming he was “above politics” and publicly vow to adhere to the cultural boycott in future.

In what has been described as an acrimonious and self-destructive affair, ticket holders arriving at the venue faced the bizarre situation of passing a noisy AAA picket line to attend a concert in which Masekela would perform his pro-Mandela anthem, Bring Him Back Home. The artist who just the year before helped launch AAA was now accused of breaking the boycott.

Masekela later complained, “There’s a kind of misdirected energy in the helping of South Africa. Even our revolution has been hijacked, because agencies overseas don’t feel they have to consult with South Africans while they’re helping them. Like the cultural boycott — nobody approached us, nobody asked us!” [6]

Other musicians on the tour echoed the sentiment. The saxophonist Barney Rachabane put it thus: “In South Africa, we had no opportunity. You could have dreams, but they never come true. It really destroys you. But Graceland opened my eyes and set a tone of hope in my life.” 

The guitarist Joel Selolwane later recalled: “I remember when we were on tour and especially in Europe during the winter times. Every time Black Mambazo went on that stage and started singing, I would feel tears coming. I’m like, ‘Here I am. I’m an African boy. I’m in the middle of the snow and ... there are 50 000 people filled up in the stadium,’ and I would be crying. I’m like, ‘Damn, we are really seeing the world.’” [7]

They were fortunate, I guess. There were many progressive South African musicians who felt that the cultural boycott was a deeply flawed strategy that did more harm than good. There were artists who were effectively stifled at home for their anti-apartheid and non-racial viewpoints, whose music was blacklisted by the SABC, and whose concerts were sabotaged by the security police who threatened venue owners and teargassed performances. The boycott effectively silenced them outside the country as well.

Dali Tambo felt this correct and proper, that the ambitions of a handful of artists were not above the struggles of a nation. Commenting on the fiasco outside the Royal Albert Hall, he told the New Musical Express, “If Paul Simon had come to us first and discussed this, none of this shit would have happened.” Years later, he would tell the New York Times, “We were fighting for our land, for our identity. We had a job to do, and it was a serious job. And we saw Paul Simon coming as a threat because it was not sanctioned … by the liberation movement.”

* * *

Later still, we’d get an idea of the sort of the cultural landscape that Dali Tambo quite literally envisaged for the country: a vast Disneyfied park outside Pretoria filled with 400 to 500 life-sized statues of anti-apartheid struggle heroes and those who’d fought against white settlers. 

According to reports, the then arts and culture minister, Paul Mashatile, was fairly enthusiastic about the idea, and his department was set to bankroll this nonsense to the tune of between R700- to R800-million. 

“Heritage,” Tambo explained, “is the show business of history.”

And, boy, does he know a thing or two about show business. In June 2013, two months before the Zimbabwean general election, Tambo’s SABC TV show, People of the South, devoted itself entirely to a craven and obsequious piece on the lifestyle of Robert Mugabe and his family. It failed to challenge or even mention any of the allegations of widespread human rights abuses against the president. Nor did it touch on reports of election fraud or the controversial land reform programme and farm confiscations.

Tambo fiercely denied accusations that his show was some sycophantic, pro-Mugabe public relations exercise. 

People of the South,” the SA Press Association quoted him as saying, “is not Hard Talk [the BBC current affairs programme]. Please understand, I am not a politician. I am not there to do the trial of Robert Mugabe, as much as you would like me to do.”

He is not a politician? Oh, how that would have amused Paul Simon. And possibly even Johnny Clegg.

If you enjoyed this article, and appreciate what Politicsweb does, please consider becoming a supporter. To do so click here.


[1] Banned from airplay by the SABC, the song also referenced Steve Biko, murdered UDF activist Victoria Mxenge, and Dr Neil Aggett, the trade unionist who, on February 5, 1982, became the first white person to die in detention since 1963. Clegg performed the song at President Nelson’s inauguration in 1994. 

[2] Quoted in Culture in Another South Africa, edited by Willem Campschreur and Joost Divendal, 1989, Zed Books, London. They’re often the butt of musicians’ jokes, but this is not the first time a drummer has spoken crap. 

[3] Quoted in 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs by Dorian Lynskey, 2010, Faber and Faber. 

[4] At the time of Queen’s performance in 1984, guitarist Brian May told reporters: “We’ve thought a lot about the morals of it, and it is something we’ve decided to do. The band is not political — we play to anybody who wants to come and listen.”

[5] Mandela was reportedly bemused by the song. He did however object to one element in its lyrics: a line about being forced to wear shoes “too small to fit his feet”.  He said that experience of petty cruelty, which became a staple of anti-apartheid agit-prop, had only lasted a few weeks. Dammers finally met the subject of his song, backstage at the April 16, 1990, Wembley concert to celebrate the ANC leader’s release from prison. On that occasion, Mandela was swamped by celebrity well-wishers and could manage no more than a cursory response when introduced to the musician: “Ah yes, very good.” It’s quite possible he had no idea who Dammers was.  (Source: 33 Revolutions Per Minute.) In April 2014, Dammers was awarded the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo for his role in the anti-apartheid movement. 

[6] Quoted in The Boy In The Bubble: A Biography of Paul Simon by Patrick Humphries, 1990, New English Library.

[7] Rachabane and Selolwane’s quotes were sourced from Under African Skies, Joel Berlinger’s 2012 documentary on the making of the Graceland album and its aftermath.