Sun City: A Musical Force Against Apartheid – Part 2

Essential Question

What was South African apartheid, and how did musicians unite to challenge it?


South African apartheid was widely condemned in the international community. In the United States, civil rights groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) sponsored boycotts against the South African government. By 1952, only four years after the policy was instated, the United Nations (UN) created a commission to research apartheid and draft policy recommendations.

As the South African government struggled to maintain the system, the violence of apartheid proved hard to ignore. In 1960, police opened fire on a non-violent protest in the town of Sharpeville, killing 70 unarmed people. The Sharpeville Massacre inspired organizations worldwide to boycott and condemn the apartheid regime. Most notably among these organizations was the International Olympic Committee, which banned South Africa from participating in the Olympics.

In response to these boycotts, the South African government ratified the Black Homeland Citizenship Act in 1970, which divided South Africa into a variety of independent homelands for blacks. On the surface, it appeared as if the South African government was giving blacks political representation in their own cities and states, but in truth the Homeland Citizenship Act simply continued apartheid. By making blacks citizens of their own supposed homelands and not citizens of South Africa, the apartheid government could strip blacks of voting rights while still proclaiming South Africa a democratic country. After the Act was ratified, blacks were forcibly relocated to the homelands, and to survive they had to work as migrant workers in large cities, which continued to be controlled by the white minority.

Violence continued into the 1970s. In 1976, South African police responded to nonviolent protests in the town of Soweto with force. In the countrywide protests that followed police killed 600 people, many of them students. College students in America who watched news coverage of the violence in Soweto now saw themselves in the struggle against apartheid, and many demanded their universities divest from South African businesses. By 1985, over 60 U.S. colleges and universities divested from anything connected with South Africa, while large companies like Citibank and PepsiCo also began removing their investments in the country. Religious organizations such as the World Council of Churches similarly spoke out against apartheid, and one of the most prominent Anti-apartheid voices to emerge during this period was Desmond Tutu, an archbishop who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984.

As awareness of apartheid spread, many musicians began taking notice. Artists such as Gil Scott-Heron, Peter Gabriel, Jerry Dammers, and Stevie Wonder used their music to speak out against apartheid, and drew upon their popularity to get people to listen. At the same time, many musicians continued to perform and earn large sums of money in South Africa, particularly at the resort casino known as “Sun City.”

Guitarist and producer Steven Van Zandt traveled to South Africa two times in the early 1980s and was stunned by the inhumanity of apartheid. He visited the Sun City resort–Queen was performing–and, unlike most Americans, also traveled the short distance to the “Homeland” of Bophuthatswana at which many of the black Sun City employees resided. Van Zandt recalled in his Sun City book, “[Bophuthatswana is] very desolate, there’s no work, no schools, no agriculture, no hospitals, nothing.” Upon his return to the States, Van Zandt discovered that Americans were largely unaware of the the South African situation, and  governmental leaders continued to adhere to a policy of “constructive engagement” with the South African government, which disallowed political or economic action against the country. “I got involved not just because I thought it was the right thing to do,” Van Zandt stated in an interview, “but because my government was on the wrong side, and nobody knew about apartheid.”

Van Zandt believed the best way to confront apartheid was through a cultural boycott among artists, which would operate similar to the sports boycott. Over several months in 1985, Van Zandt and producer Arthur Baker organized Artists United Against Apartheid (AUAA), a remarkably eclectic group of 54 musicians from several countries. They recorded the full Sun City album, produced a music video, a book, and filmed a documentary that combined their music performances with information about the plight of South Africans.

Van Zandt hoped the project would raise awareness of apartheid in South Africa and funds for the anti-apartheid movement. Moreover, Van Zandt saw the potential of the AUAA to instigate a cultural boycott against South Africa. When Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, Afrika Bambaataa, Run-D.M.C and dozens of other popular artists all sing, “I ain’t gonna play Sun City,” on the chorus of “Sun City,” who else will? Van Zandt and his collaborators wanted “Sun City” to  inspire popular musicians to avoid all of South Africa, not just the resort.

The Sun City album reached #31 on the Billboard album charts, raising over a million dollars for anti-apartheid causes. The video for the song “Sun City” was frequently played on MTV and BET, which galvanized people across the United States who had been unaware of, or previously uninterested in apartheid. As Van Zandt stated, “I was able to measure [the album’s] success by the fact that the son and daughters [of Congresspeople] came home saying, ‘What’s this South Africa thing, Daddy? Whats going on?’ because they were seeing it on MTV and BET.”

In 1986, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, levying sanctions on South Africa that would be lifted only when the government ended Apartheid. Culturally, economically, and politically isolated, the South African government soon began to dissolve apartheid laws. Many consider the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned by the South African government for 27 years, the true end of apartheid. By initiating a conversation about apartheid and the United State’s responsibility in confronting it, Van Zandt’s project accelerated the decline of the apartheid in South Africa. “We saved a couple years of murder,” Van Zandt asserts.

In Part 2 of this lesson, students view clips from the Sun City documentary and explore how musicians united to challenge apartheid. In a group setting, students will consider the various strategies activists, corporations, and other governments used to isolate the South African government and hasten the end of apartheid. Finally, students consider how apartheid relates to segregation in the United States.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • Understand the motivation, production, and lasting results of the Sun City project.
    • Learn about strategies governments, companies, and individuals developed in order to attempt to eradicate apartheid
    • Form connection behind racist policies in South Africa and those in the United States
  2. Mastery Objective:
    • Through critical reading and media analysis, students will evaluate how musicians and others addressed and challenged segregation and discrimination, both in South Africa and in the United States.