African arts, culture + politics

Flashback: August 1986. Paul Simon releases Graceland


(ARISE magazine, issue 16) Over a quarter century has passed since Paul Simon went into a Johannesburg studio with a host of South African musicians, defying the UN cultural boycott. But the ‘was he right or wrong?’ debate rages at the core of every Graceland anniversary review, casting a shadow over a universally acclaimed album.

In new documentary Under African Skies, Joe Berlinger looks at the album’s legacy, but the story isn’t a South African one. Guitarist and Graceland collaborator Ray Phiri lamented in an interview with South Africa’s Times Live. “Other individuals haven’t started telling their stories yet… There are gaps and holes. And these are the South African stories.” Even Simon admits in the film “I don’t know what the internal debate was here.”

However the US singer was well aware of the situation. Harry Belafonte advised him to tell anti-apartheid party the African National Congress (ANC) he was coming but Simon ignored the singer and civil rights campaigner. And though he refused to play the boycotted casino resort Sun City, Simon felt his recording visit was justified. “To go and play Sun City would be like going over to do a concert in Nazi Germany at the height of the Holocaust,” he told Rolling Stone in 1987. “But what I did was to go over and play to the Jews.”

Adopted in 1980, UN resolution 473 called for a cultural boycott of South Africa – backed by the ANC, the UK-based Artists Against Apartheid movement (AAA) and other international groups. “We saw Paul Simon coming as a threat and an issue,” remembers Dali Tambo, AAA founder and son of ANC politician Oliver Tambo. The concern, Amer Araim from the UN Centre Against Apartheid told the LA Times in 1987, was that “the apartheid regime is utilising them [artists] to show the people that everything is business as normal.”

Despite Graceland going triple platinum within a year in South Africa, Simon was blacklisted by the UN, a mark that was only lifted once he had promised he would not play in the country. The advocacy of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela – who both spent over 30 years in exile in protest against apartheid – certainly helped. “[Graceland] revealed the excellence of our indigenous urban and rural music,” said Masekela, “leading listeners to lean on their governments, to turn their backs on the racist regime that had destroyed the entire Southern African region”.

Politics wasn’t the only issue dogging Simon and Graceland. While the South African musicians had been paid generously (triple the NY studio rate), some complained that they had not been properly credited. Chicano group Los Lobos accused Simon of stealing songs from them, while Phiri claimed co-songwriting credits on Crazy Love and Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes – although he later said he had “no hard feelings” and recently joined Simon on his Graceland 25th anniversary tour.

Further criticism of Graceland was that Simon hadn’t written any anti-apartheid songs to add to the growing canon, which included: The Special AKA’s Free Nelson Mandela, Eddy Grant’s Gimme Hope Jo’anna and Stevie Wonder’s It’s Wrong (Apartheid). But Simon admitted, “I realised I’m not capable of telling a South African story, nor did I have the right to.” Despite this, Graceland and its 1987 world tour were far from apolitical, with Miriam Makeba’s Soweto Blues, Hugh Masekela’s Bring Him Back Home, and the entire line-up joining in on a rendition of then-unofficial national anthem Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (Lord Bless Africa).

With South Africa off limits, Simon took the tour to Zimbabwe – but criticism still dogged him. Phineas Ndlovu wrote in Zimbabwe’s Herald newspaper ”Paul Simon stands like some explorer or missionary in 19th century Africa surrounded by a group of singing, tribally dressed Africans. The European is the center of attraction… the master.” However the event itself was harmonious – uniting white and black Zimbabweans with the 2,000-plus South Africans who had crossed the border.

Apartheid’s death knell sounded in 1992 and Graceland finally came to South Africa, with concerts in Joburg, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Cape Town. The boycott over, the ANC gave their support and even held a reception for Simon. “It’s poetic that it finishes like this,” said Simon. “I can feel a sense of completion and move on”. His 2012 reunion tour – where he was joined by Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and, for the first time, Jimmy Cliff (who sang on pro-boycott song Sun City) – shows that while he may have moved
on, the power and legacy of Simon’s music remains.

African arts, culture + politics

Human zoo


(ARISE magazine, issue 15) People with animal faces, towering security fences, mouthless mutants – the imagery used in South African artist Jane Alexander’s work is not always comfortable viewing. But it’s not her intention to unsettle says Alexander, as she prepares for a new exhibition at SCAD Museum of Art in Georgia, US: “I have responded to the social environment as I interpret it from observation and conventional research… and the images evolve from this. It would seem to me that life is often unsettling, and that South Africa has always been so.”

The exhibition, entitled Surveys (From The Cape Of Good Hope), features work dating from 1998 to as recent as last year – including the tableau African Adventure, developed during South Africa’s shift from apartheid to democracy. “I see the works as fitting into a broad project of African adventures,” explains Alexander, “referring to the continent as a site of discovery, mystery and pleasure; colonial adventure and intervention; economically driven social control and enterprise; and pervasive exploitation, discrimination and damage”.

Born in Johannesburg in 1959, Alexander grew up under the shadow of apartheid. South Africa was, she remembers, “very isolated, constrained, controlled, conservative and divided in almost every way.” And although the instruments of apartheid have long been dismantled, Alexander still finds injustices. “There is exceptional work being produced in South Africa but the art scene is still largely dominated by a privileged minority in terms of access…While this may be true of other countries, it still impacts primarily on those who were and still are discriminated against because of apartheid.”

Surveys (From The Cape Of Good Hope) is at the SCAD Museum of Art from February 21 to June 3.

African arts, culture + politics

Flashback: July 25 1992 South Africa returns to the Olympics


(ARISE magazine, issue 13) Draped in flags, two exhausted but exultant women – one white, one black – embrace each other and raise their joined hands aloft. Out of context it’s an uplifting picture of racial and sporting unity, but to spectators at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona it was an affirmation that the long, bitter fight against apartheid was over.

The shot was taken moments after Ethiopian runner Derartu Tulu won the 10,000-metre women’s race, becoming the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold. Yet instead of revelling in her own glory Tulu waited for her South African challenger, Elana Meyer, to cross the finish line in second place. The pair embraced then embarked on an emotive joint lap of victory around the stadium, hand in hand. “The scale of the response was unexpected, overwhelming,” Meyer later remembered in an interview with Running Times. ”People, white and black, still stop me to this day to tell me where they were when that race was run.”

Before its long-awaited return, South Africa had not competed in the Olympics since 1960. Its application for the 1964 Games in Tokyo was turned down after it submitted a white-only team roster and refused to amend it. Later a swathe of African nations ensured their neighbour’s absence with a threatened boycott in 1968 and with a real one in 1976, involving some 22 African countries. Finally in 1970 the International Olympics Committee (IOC) banned South Africa from competing – the first major international body to impose a sanction on the nation.
The Olympics wasn’t the only arena in which South Africa was shunned. International rugby, cricket and football contests were also made off limits – hitting sports-mad South Africans as hard as the economic, trade and music sanctions already in place. Some complained sport was being unfairly politicised. Yet South Africa had arguably already done this with its discriminatory sporting regulations. Black and white athletes were forbidden from competing together, for instance, and resources for black athletes were scarce.

South Africa’s return to the Olympics was the result of slow political wrangling. In 1988 the IOC set up the Apartheid and Olympic Commission and in 1990, following Nelson Mandela’s release from jail, sent a delegation to meet with Mandela, Oliver Tambo and other members of the African National Congress (ANC). Having initially pushed for South Africa to be banned from the Olympics, the ANC now saw the potential for change its readmittance offered.

And change did come. On June 17 President de Klerk began repealing the core laws of apartheid, starting with the Population Regulation Act, which classified South Africans by race. On July 9 the IOC elected to allow South Africa to return to the Olympics. But it laid out a number of conditions; including the abolishment of all remaining instruments of apartheid, an end to segregated sporting competitions and better sporting facilities for all.

The road back to Olympic competition was not smooth. The unveiling of a new team anthem and an alternative flag – a replacement to the orange, white and blue standard, which was felt to be too associated with the minority white administration – ruffled the feathers of many white South Africans. Sports minister Louis Pienaar called it,
“a slap in the face of South Africans”. Others had more practical concerns. After years away from the starting line, would South Africa’s athletes be up to the job?

Despite rumbles of discontent and concern, on July 25 1992 the world watched South Africa’s hopefuls join Barcelona’s glitzy opening ceremony. Of the 95-strong team, only eight were black – even though black South Africans constituted 81 per cent of the population. Mandela, who led the team, commented: “I would have liked it to be a reflection of our population, but there has to be a starting point. Let bygones be bygones. Let’s concern ourselves with our presence here”.

Although the ghost of apartheid haunted South Africa long after 1992, the Games inspired change and unity across the country – and Africa. Tulu’s victory helped advance women’s rights in Ethiopia, while Meyer went on to run the JAG Foundation organising sports programmes for disadvantaged children. “Running transformed my life,” she said. “My dream is to give the same opportunities to young kids in South Africa. I really believe in the power of sport.”

African arts, culture + politics

Double vision


(ARISE magazine, issue 12) She’s been admired, vilified, imprisoned and tortured, now Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is to be immortalised – on screen and on stage anyway – with both a film and an opera about her set for 2011. Winnie The Opera, a sequel to 2007’s The Passion of Winnie, previews at Pretoria’s State Theatre on April 28.

It explores the dark period in her life when she appeared in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, accused of involvement in murders and beatings carried out by her then-bodyguards. In contrast, upcoming biopic Winnie promises to be “the ultimate women’s movie” (according to its South African director, Darrell Roodt), focusing on the love story between Winnie and Nelson.

Despite initially facing legal threats from Madikizela-Mandela’s lawyers, Roodt is now confident she will “love” the film – although he stressed it won’t shy from controversies. Although critics are concerned this is exactly what will happen. The filmmakers have also received fierce criticism from the Creative Workers Union of South Africa for casting African-American stars Jennifer Hudson and Terrence Howard in the leads, instead of choosing local talent.

Whether or not you agree with Roodt’s assertion, reported in UK newspaper The Telegraph, that Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to the anti-Apartheid movement was “as extraordinary, if not more” than Nelson Mandela’s, there’s no denying this is going to be Winnie’s year.