Joe Boyd's newsletter has this to say about that Stuart Jeffries' Guardian review of the documentary, and other matters Graceland
++ Stuart Jeffries, reviewing “Under African Skies” (a film about the making of Graceland) in the Guardian, reprised the attacks on Paul Simon – “the flouter’”- for his “disrespect to the black men and woman of the ANC and Artists Against Apartheid”.
His review took me back to a time in my own life, before Graceland, when I got involved with a musical play called Poppie Nongena. I had seen it off-Broadway and was so inspired by the music, the cast and the story (an anti-Apartheid drama about the insanity of the Bantustans project) that I ended up bringing the show to the Edinburgh Festival on my credit card. That led to a run at the Riverside Studios in London (April 1984), rave reviews and a move to the Donmar Warehouse in the West End. Working with that (mostly Xhosa) cast and (white) director Hilary Blecher was a joy, an experience to treasure, to say nothing of seeing audiences on their feet in tears every night, singing Nkosi Sikel Iafrica along with the cast.
We didn’t get any Jeffries-like attacks, but why not? The play was based on a book by a white South African writer; it had been created at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre; the cast was a mixture of actors still resident in South Africa and others in exile. In other words, a walking, talking violation of the Cultural Boycott. But its subjective credentials as a rebuke to apartheid gave it safe, hypocritical passage.
Which leads me back to Graceland. The UN and the ANC condemned it when its release was announced, but both withdrew their condemnation when they realized what a profound boost it gave the anti-apartheid cause (and just in time for the Grammy ceremonies). There is a lot of credit to spread around for the world-wide surge of sympathy that led to Mandela’s release from prison and the first free elections in 1994: Tony Hollingsworth and the Mandela Birthday concert at Wembley and Jerry Dammers’ great Free Nelson Mandela single, for example. But it must not be forgotten that the US Congress over-rode Reagan’s veto of the bill enshrining the Boycott in U.S. law an intriguing 8 months after the release of Graceland. I remember feeling at the time that the work of activists over decades might never have succeeded without that final, emotional push fuelled by the inexorable power of Graceland’s message that the culture being suppressed in South Africa was far more rich, interesting and exciting than the culture of those doing the suppressing. I am convinced this shift in attitudes was fatal to the Boer cause. It certainly wouldn’t have unfolded as it did without Simon’s ‘treacherous’ trip to Johannesburg.
(The film, by the way, is very much worth seeing. Good as it is, I was relieved to see that it didn’t touch on a number of fascinating aspects of the Graceland story I have included in the South African chapter of my book!)
The Cultural Commissars eventually found a way to torpedo Poppie Nongena. As we were preparing our move from the Riverside to the Donmar, an official from Actor’s Equity came to see me. We would have to re-cast at least two of the leading roles with black, UK-based Equity members. I explained that the cast had created the play with Blecher – many of the lines were their own improvisations. The English dialogue was surrounded by Xhosa asides, while the music was all traditional songs full of clicks impossible for a non-Xhosa to replicate. Replacing my cast with Anglo-Caribbean or Nigerian-born actors would kill the show. Too bad, he said, that’s not my problem, it’s yours.
In desperation, I persuaded one of Thatcher’s ministers to write to the Employment Secretary about the matter, thereby kicking the issue of our Work Permit extensions into, as they say, the long grass. We were able to run for four months at the Donmar before it reached the top of the pile at the Department of Employment and they confirmed Equity’s dictum – replace members of the cast with locals or close the show. We found a refugee from the cast of Ipi-Tombi (a ‘70s “happy natives” musical that had a run in London before being shut by anti-apartheid pickets) who spoke a bit of Xhosa (but was a hopeless actor). It was too dispiriting, so we packed it in. (We went on to runs in Australia, Canada and Chicago.)
I have often reflected on the irony that if Labour had been in power, they would have been far less willing to defy, however briefly, the actors’ union and we probably would not have been able to move to the West End at all. In so many countries today, the Left is on the back foot, out-manoeuvred by the forces of Reaction. Could this have something to do with the rigidity of thought represented by the likes of Jeffries’? Do his ilk really believe it would have been worth more years of apartheid, more deaths, more blighted lives, rather than allow for flexibility in the struggle? I suspect many of them do.
I enjoyed reading Joe Boyd's excellent book and recent White Bicycles performance with Robyn Hitchcock in the Purcell Room, so it's a pity that he sounds so unreasonable in his newsletter. That hysterical last sentence, which seems to be saying that sanctions actually prolonged the apartheid system in South Africa, makes him sound like a Thatcherite free market extremist.
It's daft to suggest that sales of Paul Simon's rather dull and apolitical Graceland record brought down the apartheid system. It was the effective isolation of South Africa through economic trade and cultural sanctions, combined with heroic resistance from the ANC and brave South Africans, which had the biggest impact in destroying apartheid. There would have been 'more deaths' and 'more blighted lives' if apartheid's corporate collaborators hadn't been forced to cease trading with South Africa's repressive & racist government (the campaign against Barclays bank was particularly effective). The cultural boycott played an important practical role in isolating apartheid too.
I haven't watched the Paul Simon Graceland doc yet. Must try and view it before it slips off the iPlayer at the end of the month.
Agreed Nick. Joe is a fine writer but he's being silly/petulant there. When the Springboks toured NZ in 81 (at the invitation of a right wing govt) there was fighting on the street. So much so they never got to play rugby internationally for the rest of the decade. The international battle against apartheid was won by strangling the racist system - economically and in terms of the things they desired most (rugby, cricket etc). An American pop singer producing a MOR album with a Zulu choir may have enriched the debate but it did nothing to bring about freeing Mandela.