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.


Motivational Activity:

  1. Print out Images 1-6. Place images 1-3 on one side of the room, images 4-6 on the other side. Sun City paid exorbitant sums to American and British entertainers. Tell students that they will recreate musician Steven Van Zandt’s early 1980s visit to South Africa, and as a class they will be imagining what he might have seen there. Inform students that on one side of the classroom they will see “bantustans,” where thousands of Black South Africans were forced to live during apartheid. On the other side of the classroom, they will see images of Sun City, a resort and casino in the bantustan of Bophuthatswana. Sun City paid exorbitant sums to American and British entertainers who performed at the resort. Have students circulate and examine the images, and then ask the class:
    • Based on these images, what conclusions might you draw about life in South Africa during apartheid?
    • How might have people lived, worked, and made money?
    • Do you think everyone had access to opportunities such as education and careers?
    • As a musician from the United States, how might Steven Van Zandt work to change the situation he witnessed in South Africa?


  1. Have students present their homework activity from Part 1 to the class. Ask students:
    • What sort of strategies did you think of as potential ways to fight apartheid?
    • How might such strategies be effective?
    • What roadblocks might these strategies face?
  2. Explain to students that in the following activity they will be examining some of the strategies musicians used to confront apartheid. Split students into small groups, and pass out Handout 2 – Songs Against Apartheid Questions to each student group, as well as one of the four song descriptions found in Handout 3 – Songs Against Apartheid (student groups should be answering the same questions on Handout 2 for one of the songs discussed in Handout 3). Once they have completed the questions on the handouts, ask each group to share their responses with the class. Then ask students:
    • What are some of the differences between all these examples (students might mention the musical approach, what aspect of apartheid is tackled in the song, or how the artist first learned about apartheid).
    • What are some similarities between all these examples? (students might mention the shared desire of musicians to educate the audience about apartheid).
  3. Show students Clip 1, Sun City Music Video, explaining that the song was another example of a way a musician confronted apartheid. Ask students:
    • How might you describe the message of the lyrics?
    • Do you feel the song informs people about apartheid? Why or why not?
    • What music genres do you see represented in this video? How might the breadth of collaborations be significant to the message of the song?
    • Imagine it is 1985 and you have never heard of apartheid. What did you learn watching this video? Do you think the video would influence your thoughts about apartheid? If so, how might you respond?
    • In what ways might have the video helped confront apartheid?
  4. Split students into small groups, and distribute Handout 4 – Strategies Against Apartheid, with each group receiving one of the four strategy descriptions. Have each group read their handout and prepare to present a summary of the information to the class. Then, discuss the strategies found on Handout 3 as a class. Ask students:
    • In what ways might these strategies and examples pose a challenge to a large body like the apartheid government of South Africa?
    • In what ways might the four strategies presented be complimentary to each other?
  5. Show students Clip 2, Steven Van Zandt on South Africa. Ask students:
    • Based on what you just viewed, what might you surmise Steven Van Zandt did to confront the issue of apartheid?
    • Which of the strategies discussed previously (developing awareness, boycott, divestment, and fundraising) did Van Zandt draw upon in this project?
    • How might the Sun City album serve to raise awareness about apartheid?
    • How might the album have played a role in the boycotts against the South African government?
    • How might the album be part of a divestment strategy?
    • How did the album raise funds for anti-apartheid organizations?
  6. Pass out Handout 5 – Tom Morello on Sun City and read aloud as a class. Then ask students:
    • How does the author argue “Sun City” was different than other benefit albums, such as “We are the World” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas”? (Encourage students to think about the differing emotions “Sun City” brought up, and the ways it directly addressed political issues that the other benefit songs did not).
    • How does Morello claim “Sun City” effectively helped end apartheid?
    • Why would Morello say the song featured perhaps the “most revolutionary gathering of artists ever heard on a recording”? (Encourage students to think about the variety of genres and musicians featured in the song).
    • How does Morello see the song having continued relevance? What did he do to the song to address more contemporary issues?

Summary Activity:

  1. Play Clip 3, Breaking Down Racism Everywhere. Ask students:
    • What might Steven Van Zandt be suggesting when he says the struggle of South Africans is also “our struggle”?
    • How might confronting apartheid also reveal issues of racism in the United States?
    • What do you think Steven Van Zandt might have meant by suggesting that through Sun City he is trying to “break down our own apartheid right here”?
    • What strategies did Van Zandt draw upon to break cultural barriers in the United States? (Encourage students to think about the diversity of musicians that Steven Van Zandt gathered for the project, in particular that rap was a new, and often controversial genre at the time.)
    • In what ways do races continue to be separated United States? (Encourage students to think about racially segregated neighborhoods, schools, etc.). What might be done to further eradicate these separations?

Extension Activity:

  1. Short Essay: Is apartheid only in South Africa?
    • Read The Story of Clyde Ross, and compose an argumentative essay that addresses the following questions:
      • Did the United States have a version of apartheid?
      • In what ways were South African apartheid and American segregation similar? How were they different?
      • How did people respond to each?
      • Do you see the legacy of apartheid / segregation in your country today? How?


Common Core State Standards

College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text

  • Reading 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects

  • Writing 1: Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
  • Writing 9: Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12

  • Speaking and Listening 2: Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.
  • Speaking and Listening 3: Evaluate a speaker’s point of view, reasoning, and use of evidence and rhetoric.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12

  • Language 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

Career Technical Education Standards (California Model) – Arts, Media and Entertainment Pathway Standards

Design, Visual and Media Arts (A)

  • A1.0 Demonstrate ability to reorganize and integrate visual art elements across digital media and design applications.
    A1.9 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work. ia, and Entertainment |
    A3.0 Analyze and assess the impact of history and culture on the development of professional arts and media products.
    A3.2 Describe how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence and are reflected in a variety of artistic products.
    A3.3 Identify contemporary styles and discuss the diverse social, economic, and political developments reflected in art work in an industry setting.
    A4.0 Analyze, assess, and identify effectiveness of artistic products based on elements of art, the principles of design, and professional industry standards.
    A4.2 Deconstruct how beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence commercial media (traditional and electronic).
    A4.3 Analyze the aesthetic value of a specific commercial work of art and defend that analysis from an industry perspective.
    A4.5 Analyze and articulate how society influences the interpretation and effectiveness of an artistic product.
    A5.0 Identify essential industry competencies, explore commercial applications and develop a career specific personal plan.
    A5.3 Deconstruct works of art, identifying psychological content found in the symbols and images and their relationship to industry and society.

Performing Arts (B)

  • B2.0 Read, listen to, deconstruct, and analyze peer and professional music using the elements and terminology of music.
    B2.2 Describe how the elements of music are used.
    B2.5 Analyze and describe significant musical events perceived and remembered in a given industry generated example.
    B2.6 Analyze and describe the use of musical elements in a given professional work that makes it unique, interesting, and expressive.
    B2.7 Demonstrate the different uses of form, both past and present, in a varied repertoire of music in commercial settings from diverse genres, styles, and professional applications.
    B7.0 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of multiple industry performance products from a discipline-specific perspective.
    B7.3 Analyze the historical and cultural perspective of the musician in the professional setting.
    B8.0 Deconstruct the aesthetic values that drive professional performance and the artistic elements necessary for industry production.
    B8.1 Critique discipline-specific professional works using the language and terminology specific to the discipline.
    B8.2 Use selected criteria to compare, contrast, and assess various professional performance forms.
    B8.3 Analyze the aesthetic principles that apply in a professional work designed for live performance, film, video, or live broadcast.
    B8.4 Use complex evaluation criteria and terminology to compare and contrast a variety of genres of professional performance products.

Social Studies – National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)

  • Theme 1: Culture
  • Theme 2: Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Theme 4: Individual Development and Identity
  • Theme 5: Individuals, Groups, and Institutions
  • Theme 9: Global Connections

National Standards for Music Education

Core Music Standard: Responding

  • Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
  • Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators’ and/or performers’ expressive intent.
  • Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
  • Core Music Standard: Connecting
  • Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.

National Core Arts Standards


  • Anchor Standard 7: Perceive and analyze artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 8: Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
  • Anchor Standard 9: Apply criteria to evaluate artistic work.


  • Anchor Standard 10: Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.
  • Anchor Standards 11: Relate artistic ideas and work with societal, cultural and historical context to deepen understanding.

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