AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

Later today in Cape Town Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band start off a four-date concert tour of South Africa–the first time ever Springsteen and his band will perform in South Africa. The Cape Town dates are in Bellville, which looks and feels a lot like New Jersey, BTW. The tour will end with a concert in Soweto next Saturday. To coincide with this historic moment, Backstreets.com, a site focusing on New Jersey music, posted the transcript of a radio interview with Steven Van Zandt (Little Steven), Springsteen’s longtime guitar player. In the interview, Van Zandt recalls his longtime involvement with South Africa, and his role in uniting American musicians against Apartheid. The highlight of the campaign was the 1985 song “Sun City,” which featured at least 50 odd musicians, including Springsteen, Run-DMC, Pete Townsend, Joey Ramone and Afrika Bambataa, and which–via MTV and BET (radio didn’t want to play it: “It was too black for white radio, too white for black radio”)–introduced a whole new generation of Americans to what was going on in South Africa. A lot of this is known from a book, Sun City: The Making of the Record (1985), written by Dave Marsh, a Van Zandt collaborator. But it is when Van Zandt starts talking about Paul Simon that it gets interesting. I’ve embedded that section below.

Basically, the set up is this: In the early stages of the project, Van Zandt traveled to South Africa, where he met with black activists and experienced the effects of Apartheid first hand. In one scene, he goes to Soweto (check his description of 1980s Soweto: “… you’d see, like, two or three feet of fog all over the ground. No lights”) to meet more people and talk about the cultural boycott. Paul Simon, meanwhile had defied the cultural boycott, and traveled to South Africa to record with South African musicians for his Graceland album. The interviewer, whose contributions are in bold, is Marsh:

So I snuck in and met with AZAPO, the Azanian People’s Organisation, who were like a more radical, violent version of our Black Panthers. They were actually on the front lines blowing shit up and stuff like that. And I had to plead my case to them, because they were sort of the hard line. And I said to them, “Look, all due respect, man, you’re not gonna win this fight. I don’t blame you for picking up guns and defending yourselves.” Because it was brutal; the regime down there was brutality. “I don’t blame you, but you’re not gonna win. You cannot win this way. Let me please try my idea, and I’m gonna win this war for you in the media, on TV.”

Now this already would’ve been a stretch for most people, but when you’re trying to tell this to people who don’t have electricity, that you’re about to win their war on a box that you plug in somewhere, they looked at me like, “This guy is really nuts.” [laughter]

If you thought Stevie’s kidding… the truth of the matter is that South Africa, for a very, very long time, well into the ’70s or early ’80s, did not have television for exactly this reason. There was no television if you’d been talking to a white South African.

Yeah, because when you’d go into Soweto, which was this huge area — I mean, it’s huge — you’d see, like, two or three feet of fog all over the ground. No lights. And it just had this very, very surreal feeling to it, because that was all from the coal-fires and whatever they were burning for heat. So it was like a really interesting movie-scenario sort of thing.

And I met with AZAPO, who had a very frank conversation — I was talking to the translator — about whether they should kill me for even being there. That’s how serious they were about violating the boycott. I eventually talked them out of that and then talked them into maybe going kinda with my thing.

They showed me that they have an assassination list, and Paul Simon was at the top of it. [NOTE: In 1986, Paul Simon recorded tracks for his Graceland album in South Africa, in direct violation of the cultural boycott.] And in spite of my feelings about Paul Simon, who we can talk about in a minute if you want to, I said to them, “Listen, I understand your feelings about this; I might even share them, but…”

I was with you the first time you saw Paul and talked to him about this, at [entertainment attorney] Peter Parcher’s 60th birthday party.

That’s right, that’s right, that’s right! I’m glad you were a witness, because wait’ll you hear the latest on that. Anyway, I said to them, “Listen, this is not gonna help anybody if you knock off Paul Simon. Trust me on this, alright? Let’s put that aside for the moment. Give me a year or so, you know, six months,” whatever I asked for, “to try and do this a different way. I’m trying to actually unify the music community around this, which may or may not include Paul Simon, but I don’t want it to be a distraction. I just don’t need that distraction right now; I gotta keep my eye on the ball.” And I took him off that assassination list, I took Paul Simon off the U.N. blacklist, trying to…

You mean you convinced them to take him off…

Yeah, because this was a serious thing…

Because this was gonna eat up the attention that the movement itself needed.

Yes, and the European unions were serious about this stuff, man. You were on that [U.N. blacklist], you did not work, okay? Not like America, which was so-so about this stuff, man. Over there, they were serious about this stuff, you know? Anyway, so yeah, this was in spite of Paul Simon approaching me at that party saying, “What are you doing, defending this communist?!”

What he said was, “Ah, the ANC [African National Congress, the organization of which Mandela was President at the time of his arrest and imprisonment], that’s just the Russians.” And he mentioned the group that [murdered black South African activist Steven Biko] had been in, which was not AZAPO …

Was he PAC [Pan-Africanist Congress]?

It doesn’t matter [for this story], but [Paul Simon] said, “That’s just the Chinese communists.”

Yeah, yeah. And he says, “What are you doing defending this guy Mandela?! He’s obviously a communist. My friend Henry Kissinger told me about where all of the money’s coming from,” and all of this. I was, like, all due respect, Paul…

I remember it very vividly, because it was aimed at everybody standing in the general direction.
Yeah, but mostly he was telling me.

Well, yeah, you were the one… Everybody knew who to get mad at first. [laughter]

He knew more than me, he knew more than Mandela, he knew more than the South African people. His famous line, of course, was, “Art transcends politics.” And I said to him, “All due respect, Paulie, but not only does art not transcend politics… art is politics. And I’m telling you right now, you and Henry Kissinger, your buddy, go fuck yourselves.” Or whatever I said. But he had that attitude, and he knowingly and consciously violated the boycott to publicize his record.

Well, to make his record. That’s the violation of the boycott — to make his record.

Yeah, and he actually had the nerve to say, “Well, I paid everybody double-scale.” Remember that one? Oh, that’s nice… no arrogance in that statement, huh? [laughter]

Now, the punchline. Cut to 30 years later, or whatever it is. He asked me to be in his movie [Under African Skies, the documentary on the making of Graceland, included as a DVD in the album's 25th anniversary boxed edition]. I said, “Alright, I’ll be in your movie, if you don’t edit me. You ready to tell it like it is?”

He says, “Yep.”

“Are you, like, uh, apologizing in this movie?”

“Yep.”

“Okay. I’m not gonna be a sore winner. I’ll talk to you.”

I did an interview. They show me the footage. Of course, they edited the hell out of it to some little statement where I’m saying something positive about Paul. [laughter] And I see the rest of the footage, where he’s supposedly apologizing, with Dali Tambo [founder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of late ANC leaders Adelaide and Oliver Tambo]. He says, “I’m sorry if I made it inconvenient for you.” That was his apology.

In other words, he still thinks he’s right, all these years later!

You’re the only person who’s ever met Paul twice who thinks that’s surprising. [laughter]

I mean, at this point, you still think you were right?! Meanwhile, that big “communist,” as soon as he got out of jail, I see who took the first picture with him. There’s Paul Simon and Mandela, good buddies. I’m watchin’ CNN the other day. Mandela dies, on comes a statement by Bono and the second statement’s by Paul Simon. I’m like oh, just make me throw up. You know, I like the guy in a lot of ways, I do; and I respect his work, of course. He’s a wonderful, wonderful artist, but when it comes to this subject, he just will not admit he was wrong. Y’know, just mea culpa. Come on, you won! He made twenty, thirty million dollars at least, okay? Take the money and apologize, okay? I mean, say “Listen, maybe I was wrong about this a little bit.” No.

Well…unfortunately we live in a country where the money means you don’t have to apologize, and let’s leave that there.

Source.

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Sean Jacobs

Otherwise known as Hasan Wasan.


28 thoughts on “When Steven Van Zandt convinced AZAPO to take Paul Simon off a hit list and what Paul Simon really thought of Nelson Mandela

  1. Interesting. Just one observation. I grew up in a South African township (not Soweto) in the 80s. We had electricity and TVs. For all their gross violation of human rights, the Apartheid govt introduced television in 1976. In the 80s almost all township homes had television. Otherwise fast piece.

  2. Steven van Zandt worked in South Africa in the mid-1980s, as a producer, on “30 Million Lonely People”, a single released by Ella Mental, an arty pop-rock group led by singer Heather Mac and guitarist Tim Parr. Was this not also a violation of the cultural boycott?

  3. Hi. I’m the Backstreets.com transcriber of the on-air conversation between Dave Marsh and SVZ. If possible, I’d like some more info on Little Steven’s alleged involvement with Ella Mental’s “30 Million People”, please. I’ve found nothing in my research so far that confirms Van Zandt as having produced or been involved in any other way with the making of this record. One possibly relevant note: “30 Million People” also got issued as part of a four-track 12-inch single (EP) entitled 4 FOR AFRICA with tracks by Angie Peach, Tribe After Tribe and Via Afrika, as well. Via Afrika was part of Little Steven’s Artists United Against Apartheid project, too, so perhaps there’s some kind of connection there?

    Oh, and for the record, I’ve never heard or read of Steve Van Zandt claiming to have “ended apartheid” single-handedly. I have heard him (and others) claim, rightly so, that the “Sun City” project played a major role in informing many U.S. citizens, myself included, about apartheid, our government’s support of it and its relation to our country’s own problems with racism. This in turn built more public support here in the U.S. for withdrawing any/all of our government’s and corporation’s support (especially financial support) of the apartheid regime. It was this withdrawal process, described in detail by SVZ in the conversation above, combined with the long-standing and various anti-apartheid activities of the South African people themselves, that helped to finally turn the tide in defeating apartheid.

    And finally also for the record, I should note that these are all my own individual views and not necessarily those of Backstreets.com, SVZ, etc.

  4. This doesn’t seem to contradict the assertion made in the transcribed conversation/interview: “…South Africa, for a very, very long time, well into the ’70s or early ’80s, did not have television…”

  5. If you can, please respond to my request for further information. The details of the request are in one of my other replies posted below. Thanks!

  6. Shawn, I have a copy of the single. It’s a 7″, not the EP you mentioned. It’s unfortunately somewhere in a packed crate. (I’m in the process of moving houses.) Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll send details, pics of labels, sleeve, etc. Andrew

  7. Okay, that sounds fine, Andrew, and thanks very much for your prompt reply. And yes, I came across that same rock.co.za link in my research. Unless I somehow missed it, however, there’s actually no mention of SVZ’s involvement with Ella Mental in that link, correct? Nevertheless, it’s a very interesting read. Speaking of interesting reads, Springsteen relevance and South African rock history, I understand that Mr. Springsteen himself referenced this open letter to him at his pre-show press conference before his first-ever South African concert:

    http://garycool.com/archives/7230

  8. As I originally noted below (in case it was missed,) “…for the record, I’ve never heard or read of Steve Van Zandt claiming to have ‘ended apartheid’ single-handedly. I have heard him (and others) claim, rightly so, that the ‘Sun City’ project played a major role in informing many U.S. citizens, myself included, about apartheid, our government’s support of it and its relation to our country’s own problems with racism. This in turn built more public support here in the U.S. for withdrawing any/all of our government’s and corporation’s support (especially financial support) of the apartheid regime. It was this withdrawal process, described in detail by SVZ in the conversation above, combined with the long-standing and various anti-apartheid activities of the South African people themselves, that helped to finally turn the tide in defeating apartheid.”

  9. Shawn, true, no mention of Van Zandt in the SA Rock Files (a patchy source). But the credits on the picture sleeve of the single list him as producer (and in rather large type, too). Also, I spoke to Ella Mental singer Heather Mac recently about the Springsteen concerts in Cape Town and she mentioned she was hoping to get backstage somehow and meet up again with SVZ. She said she and the group had enjoyed working with him, and thought him “amazing”.

  10. I like Van Zandt, but I think he really expanded his role in ending apartheid. Why would a terrorist listen to some guy they probably never heard of who at the time was not that big of a celebrity in the US? I just find that hard to believe.

  11. We travelled to West Africa in 1985, after having transited through NYC where “Sun City” was attracting lots of attention. Upon arriving in Lome, Togo, I noticed immediately that every cassette vendor (they were sold from the back of bicycles) had copies of Steve’s LP. They were, of course, pirated, but selling like hotcakes. Everybody I spoke to about it needed to know more, much more, about Steve Van Zandt. I don’t think I have ever felt prouder to be an American, and to be a fan of Miami Steve. This interview confirms it! Thanks.

  12. “And he says, ‘What are you doing defending this guy Mandela?! He’s obviously a communist. My friend Henry Kissinger told me about where all of the money’s coming from,’ and all of this. I was, like, all due respect, Paul…”

    Paul Simon’s friend Kissinger also gave the green light to Argentina’s “dirty war” (in which more than 20,000 were kidnapped, tortured in clandestine concentration camps and murdered), a story I broke in The Nation in 1987 @ http://www.scribd.com/doc/192087462/Patricia-Patt-Derian-Robert-C-Hill-et-al-and-the-Argentine-dirty-war-Draft-MemCon

  13. Andrew, do you think at some point you could ask Heather Mac (and/or any other Ella Mental alumni) about SVZ’s involvement with “30 Million Lonely People” and how any relevant cultural-boycott issues might’ve been addressed/avoided? I remain very doubtful that Little Steven, given both his founding role in Artists United Against Apartheid and his political viewpoints in general, would’ve consciously violated the boycott. Nevertheless, I also remain interested in learning and reading whatever you have about this period in Steve’s career, which is all new information to me. Thanks much in advance.

  14. Steve Van Zandt comes off sounding like a cocky white saviour in this article.

    I mean,

    “I don’t blame you, but you’re not gonna win. You cannot win this way. Let me please try my idea, and I’m gonna win this war for you in the media, on TV.”

    Not much unlike the white saviour who joins the tribe under attack and uses his ways and ideas to fend off the big bad enemy. The tribes warriors don’t like it but he proves himself and in the end becomes the hero and screws the Chief’s smitten daughter.

  15. so paul simon is a dick for calling mandela a communist, thinking he knows “more than the south african people” and recording a south african flavored album. van zandt records a south african flavored album about south africa, thinks he can end apartheid “on tv”, and he’s cool.
    got it.

  16. Great Reporting, but if there was anybody who still thought Kissenger was a good and unbiased guy in 1987, then they must’ve been living in cave…

  17. All through the process of making the seminal album “Graceland” Paul Simon was always honest and straightforward about his condemnation of the Apartheid regime.

    Furthermore when he toured the album he steadfastly refused to play any concerts in South Africa due to the required racial segregation, which he publicly opposed.

    Anti-apartheid activists such as South African exile Miriam Makeba were happy to appear in live concerts with him, supporting the Graceland album and tour, while he played to racially mixed audiences such as the Zimbabwe gigs which are filmed for posterity and available now on DVD.

    Paul Simon may have appeared naive in his non-political approach, when recording the initial material that ended up on Graceland, but as acknowledged on the anniversary DVD even the headline ANC activists who initially criticised him for breaking the cultural boycott, have now reconciled and come to appreciate that in making Graceland he produced a racially colour-blind piece of work that shone a much needed spotlight on the racial and economic iniquities of Apartheid-era South Africa.

    Paul Simon may be correctly criticised for his naivete in breaking the cultural boycott to produce Graceland, but he certainly does not deserve any criticism that implies his work in any way helped prop up the Apartheid regime/white minority rule in South Africa.

    His artistic vision that initially took him there in 1985, has subsequently been validated by both the exposure he gave to the native musicians he worked with (including the platform he gave to Ladysmith Black Mambazo which allowed them to progress to worldwide success and acclaim) and the broader exposure he brought to the racial and economic iniquities and unfair realities of the Apartheid regime – to which he drew the attention of many who previously were not particularly aware nor active in attempting to redress.

    That the initial concerns of exiled anti-Apartheid activists are now resolved and no longer considered an issue, ought to be sufficient for the rest of the world to recognise the bigger picture – and furthermore see Paul Simon’s work in the appropriate context, ie someone who was fearless enough to recognise the artistic potential of a country bound up at the time repressing the majority of its populace, and giving an outlet to that artistry – as well as raising international consciousness of the specific political iniquities, which a few years later would be dramatically recognised and addressed in a progressive and positive fashion.

    Being on speaking terms with dodgy characters such as Kissinger may not have been Paul Simon’s smartest move, but his familiarity with that Nobel prize winning yet discredited politician should not be sufficient ammunition to actually discredit his artistic achievement. He also consulted with other far more credible luminaries such as Harry Belafonte, as he sought to avoid causing offence to political activists who’s objectives he supported, as he sought out a path which he could conscientiously follow while pursuing his artistic vision.

    It’s easy in retrospect to criticise and condemn, but I submit that Paul Simon made significant effort to reconcile all the issues at hand with his own conscience before he acted, and with the benefit of hindsight it seems clear he made a difficult yet valid judgement – and the world is now a better place for it.

  18. Whiny and butthurt? Hey, I recognize Mr Steven Van Zandt here. His axe-to-grind is that Mr Simon has been more succesful in bringing the world’s attention to the evil of South-African apartheid than Mr Van Zandt’s marginal “Sun City” project ever was.

    And yes, they had both broken the artistic and cultural boycott – a fact that Mr Van Zandt is apparently not prepared to admit. Still full of himself after all these years.

  19. To date, nobody who’s written on this thread, hminkema included, has offered any concrete evidence of Steve Van Zandt violating the U.N.-sanctioned cultural boycott of apartheid South Africa. It’s one thing to express/debate one’s personal opinions on the effectiveness/ethics of the very different approaches to apartheid and the cultural boycott taken by Paul Simon and Steve Van Zandt. It’s quite another, however, to repeatedly allege that Van Zandt is guilty of actions for which not a bit of evidence has been produced or cited.

  20. Mr. Guy Graham has made some good points. But it is important to note that Paul Simon violated a UN boycott of South Africa at that time. It’s important to note that all situations will have both positive & negative attributes to it. Take the attacks on 9/11/01. Now there is a Department of Homeland Security, & enhanced screening at the airports now. This is in response to Mr. Simon exposing South African culture to the world. I don’t know what age Mr. Graham is. But I was a college student in the eighties. There were protests on over 500 college campuses over apartheid. From late !984 up to 1987, several thousand individuals to include congressmen, celebrities were arrested in daily civil disobedience protests outside the South African embassy in Washington, DC. Also from 1984 to 1986, The American and international public saw on newscasts, the South African police shooting and killing people at protests,funerals who were not armed with guns or very lethal weapons. These included children, women, & even the elderly. In 1986, The apartheid gov’t declared a state of emergency. South Africa was a big story from Sixty minutes to PBS. So Mr. Simon was very naïve not to understand that going to South Africa would haunt him forever. That was Mr. Simon’s naievity. Not what was happening in South Africa. He was asked not to go by many illumanaries. Also, there were campaigns across the US to get local/municipal/state/federal government to divest from companies doing business in South Africa along with getting corporation to doing the same in kind. Paul Simon could have brought together South African musicians and promoted South African culture from another venue, without traveling to South Africa. Lets don’t be apologist for a non-repentant Paul Simon who clearly knew better.

  21. Paul Simon’s disregard for the struggle of South Africans against a nazi-like system of oppression (very similar in many aspects to nazi-Germany between 1933 and 1939) prove to me that this guy has no sense of solidarity and no personal dignity. I guess his money and his success were his substitutes for his lack of character. Isn’t Paul Simon Jewish? Imagine some foreign music star – let’s say Fred Astaire – visiting the Warsaw Ghetto after an arrangement with the Gestapo to record some Klezmer-inspired music for his next album.

    But after all – it was just Apartheid and only black people…so who cares.

  22. Paul’s mischpoke Henry Kissinger also made sure that such pseudo-guerillas as Renamo in Mozambique and Unita in Angola would receive “material assistance” from the US, for example the infamous “Stinger” surface-to-air missile (the Americans also gave those to the Taliban, so that they could shoot down some Soviet Migs in Afghanistan, later the were re-used in order to down some American troops travelling in Chinook helicopters, but that’s another story). That’s how the so called “civil wars” in Angola and Mozambique were created (apartheid-South African support and astonishingly Israeli support also played a crucial role in creating and maintaining these pseudo-movements in order to destabilize it’s newly independent “frontline states”). “Beggar Your Neighbors – Apartheid Power In Southern Africa” describe this process pretty well.

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