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COLUMN ONE : A Cultural Boycott in Evolution : Foreign artists now can get the blessing of anti-apartheid groups to perform in South Africa. Some chafe at having to ‘consult.’ Transgressions of others are not forgotten.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This movie had all the right credentials. The writer was Athol Fugard, a playwright with an impeccable anti-apartheid pedigree. And the story, “The Road to Mecca,” was a classic South African tale of artistic freedom.

But before filming began in South Africa with a prominent American in the cast, the black liberation movement objected.

The implied threat was that the movie version of Fugard’s Broadway hit would be blacklisted overseas unless the producers “consulted” with the guardians of the anti-apartheid movement.

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So the filmmakers “consulted,” agreeing to donate $800 to a cultural center in a black township. Only then did they get the go-ahead.

“It was a close call,” recalled Shelley Wells, a member of the panel that considered the case.

A major concern was that the movie company had done projects for government-run television. But, in the end, “We generally felt it was a film that could add to the culture of film in South Africa,” Wells said.

The worldwide cultural boycott, one of the most effective sanctions ever imposed on South Africans, has entered a difficult new phase that has confused many international artists and angered some prominent local ones.

For more than a decade, it had been a blanket boycott and offenders were easy to spot. Every foreign performer who appeared in South Africa ended up on an international sanctions list monitored by the African National Congress and the U.N. Special Committee Against Apartheid.

But now it has become an infinitely more complex “selective boycott,” under which some performers are acceptable and others are not, depending on their willingness to consult with the ANC, to reach out to black audiences with benefit performances and to contribute money and talent to develop local black artists.

“We want to encourage a democratic cultural exchange, if it’s on our terms,” said Baleka Kgositsile, an official in the ANC’s arts and culture department.

Selections are made by the ANC and a variety of arts groups, some of which have sprung up in the last few months.

Foreign performers hoping for an exemption from the cultural boycott must negotiate with one or more local arts groups, which are in daily contact with the ANC. Visitors are asked to help the local arts scene by including South African talent in their acts, conducting township workshops and donating some profits to “cultural development.” If the local artists are satisfied, the arrangement is blessed by the ANC.

But the past has not been forgotten. Old friends of the liberation struggle will get first crack at South Africa’s stages.

As an example, Kgositsile said, “I don’t see us having a Michael Jackson” as the first singer exempted from the boycott. “Although he didn’t break the cultural boycott in any way, and he’s very popular in the townships, he’s not one of our closest friends.” (For the record, Jackson has not offered to perform in South Africa.)

Some examples of “good comrades,” she added, would be Stevie Wonder, Harry Belafonte, Whitney Houston, Tracy Chapman, and George Michael--all of whom have been active in the U.S. anti-apartheid movement.

Exempting some people while blocking others is a tricky task.

One of the most powerful weapons of the cultural boycott was its tough, no-exceptions stance. U.N. resolutions called for the total isolation of South Africa--economically, diplomatically and culturally. And that created a powerful fear of South Africa throughout the entertainment industry.

American performers who have worked or even visited in South Africa--no matter what the circumstances--have later found doors closed to them in much of the world. And, back at home, they have faced plenty of bad publicity.

Two years ago, for example, the Commodores, a black American singing group, quietly signed a contract to play at Sun City, the casino-resort whose name has been synonymous with the cultural boycott. But the entertainers pulled out under pressure from anti-apartheid groups when the news leaked back home.

Even having good intentions is no defense.

Singer Laura Branigan played Sun City in 1989, donating part of her fee to the charity work of Operation Hunger. She later lost a booking in the Philippines because of her appearance in South Africa.

Paul Simon, the singer and songwriter, brought black South African musicians an international audience with his album “Graceland.” But the anti-apartheid movement said his recording sessions met the definition of “performing in South Africa” and violated the boycott.

To keep himself off the blacklist, Simon wrote a contrite letter to the U.N. anti-apartheid committee. His explanation was accepted, but even today he is seen by some as one of the sanctions busters.

Simon’s sin was summed up recently by Barbara Masekela, the former head of the ANC cultural desk and sister of exiled musician Hugh Masekela, who performed on the “Graceland” album.

Simon, she said, “should have consulted.”

Local artists have not been immune, either. And some consider the meddling of anti-apartheid politicians as nothing short of censorship. They worry about how free artists will be when these cultural arbiters become part of the government.

Mbongeni Ngema first ran into trouble with his Broadway hit musical, “Sarafina,” based on the 1976 student revolt in South Africa. Some activists criticized him for profiting from the black liberation struggle.

More recently, the cultural desk of the giant Congress of South African Trade Unions, a key ANC ally, objected to his new musical, “Township Fever,” which tells the true story of two striking workers sentenced to death for killing men who crossed the picket lines. The unionists complained that his work makes organized labor look bad.

Ngema had support in other anti-apartheid quarters, however, and no attempt was made to stop “Township Fever,” which has been staged in Johannesburg and New York.

“We live in a very strange culture,” Ngema said in an interview. “They said I didn’t want to consult. I said, ‘I don’t want to consult with anybody.’

“If they want to call me in and talk about the weather and even politics, that’s fine,” said Ngema, who was detained by the South African government for 33 days in the early 1980s. “But do not ask me to ‘consult’ about my work. No one can tell me what to do. I paid my dues in the struggle.”

For years, local artists who wanted to remain in the ANC’s good graces were forced to steer clear of appearances at “apartheid venues,” such as state-run television or concert halls controlled by companies seen as friends of the state.

But those restrictions also have begun to fall away. Last month, Mango Groove, a multiracial band, became the first South African act to perform at Sun City.

“We don’t want to strangle our artists,” explained Jabu Ngwenye, of the South African Musicians Alliance, which has close ties to the ANC.

The alliance says it will soon consider allowing foreign acts to appear at Sun City if the owners, Sun International, agree to abide by the selective boycott and stop contending, as they have in the past, that the resort is in an independent country. Sun City is in Bophuthatswana, a nominally independent homeland created by the apartheid system.

“If they meet our demands, then we’ll open it up,” Ngwenye said.

These days, the rapid demise of apartheid and the crumbling of all sanctions has touched off a flurry of inquiries to the ANC from entertainers who want to be among the first to perform on South African soil.

The Musicians Alliance heard that Simon might be willing to put on a free concert and it has invited him. But Simon’s past is not forgotten. U.S. anti-apartheid activists recently called the ANC to express their reservations. If Simon comes, he’ll probably have to make a public statement of support for the cultural boycott, said the ANC’s Kgositsile.

The ANC and the U.N. special committee had hoped that replacing the blanket boycott with a selective one in 1989 would slowly end South Africa’s cultural isolation and benefit the culturally impoverished black masses. But the old rules seem to have a life of their own. Some entertainers still want to hold out until the black majority gets the vote.

“We’ve been faced with problems of interpretation,” Kgositsile said. “People are looking at the old policy of isolation and not at what we are now saying: that we need more international exchange.”

Spike Lee, the American filmmaker, flatly refused a request from anti-apartheid leaders to screen his film, “Do the Right Thing,” in South Africa until more change occurs.

“We know he’s firmly behind us and we appreciate that he’s sticking to his guns,” said Shelley Wells, of the Film and Allied Workers Organization. “But right now we would welcome his film and think it would do some good.”

The first foreign act to break the barrier was Kaoma, a lambada dance troupe from Brazil that arrived in South Africa several weeks ago. Kaoma donated some of its profits to a children’s home in Soweto and conducted free “people’s workshops.”

The ANC and its allies also want to keep a close rein on the number of international visitors, to prevent the local entertainment industry from being starved and to guard the interests of the disfranchised black masses.

“We are intervening on behalf of our people, and we think we are within our rights,” Kgositsile said. “We have died, we have bled, we have done everything to deserve this power.”

Some controls will be needed to guard against censorship, “but we have no apologies for the power,” she added. “That’s what we’ve been fighting for.”

Although the boycott is selective, and many believe it will disappear in a matter of months, those who ignore it do so at their peril. The ANC has condemned the appearance this month of the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Baden-Baden, Germany, at the Pretoria State Theater, which has been a symbol of state-sponsored arts. The orchestra was invited by the government, and the ANC wasn’t consulted.

The ANC has threatened to set up pickets during the performances, and Kgositsile doesn’t hide her anger. “One hundred and ten people are coming here to play violins as if there aren’t people they should be consulting,” she said.

Classical music is virtually unknown in the black townships, and the ANC thinks the orchestra should have explored ways of expanding the cultural horizons of blacks.

“They should be asking us how they could share this culture of white South Africa with the rest of South Africa,” she said.

The cultural guardians first got wind of “The Road to Mecca” film when the producers were searching for a South African actress to make a voice tape for an American co-star, Oscar winner Kathy Bates. Actress after actress turned down the part and Performing Arts Workers Equity, a South African actors association, took the matter up with Fugard.

Fugard had no quarrel with those consultations, which he viewed as similar to those he has conducted with American actors’ unions. He refused to cast a South African in the role, which Bates has played on stage, but agreed that Bates would join the association and the movie would allow several film trainees onto the set.

But Fugard’s producers had a more difficult time. To prevent their small-budget film from being boycotted overseas, they also had to agree to make a donation to a township arts project. The film recently completed a five-week shoot in the scrubby desert of the Karoo, deep in South Africa; a June release is planned.

The cultural boycott “is a real messy situation,” Fugard said recently. “It achieves absolutely nothing. And in so many senses, it is crumbling and falling away.”

THE ARTISTS AND THE ANC The cultural boycott of South Africa formally began more than a decade ago to isolate whites and force the government to abandon apartheid. The effects of the boycott--initiated by the African National Congress and assisted by U.N. resolutions--have been deeply felt by most South African whites, who are avid followers of American and European films, plays, music, literature and art. Now, theaters, movie houses, music halls and other cultural institutions are open to all races, at least partly in response to that pressure. But a selective boycott remains, with friends of the ANC--"good comrades"-- getting first crack at the newly opened venues. Those who have run afoul of the ANC and its boycott may be left out.


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