Steven Van Zandt on South African activism: ‘We did light that spark’


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The ‘Sopranos’ star helped boycott Sun City resort to fight apartheid

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Steven Van Zandt is best known for his music and starring in “The Sopranos”, but has also had a notable influence on politics and activism.

The 70-year-old musician is best known for creating political-themed music throughout his solo career after temporarily leaving Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. In 1985, he created Artists United Against Apartheid, a group of musicians who refused to perform at the Sun City resort in South Africa to protest against apartheid.


The group – which included Springsteen, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Pat Benatar, Peter Gabriel, Bono and many others – created the song “Sun City” as a symbol of their opposition to apartheid. The tune was intended to raise awareness of the issue in order to inspire world governments to take action.

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During an appearance Friday on “Real Time With Bill Maher,” van Zandt opened up about his time fighting the isolation system, receiving praise from the talk show host for working to change the world.

“It involved a lot of people, not just us, the four musketeers – me, Danny Schechter, Arthur Baker and Hart Perry – but it was really the United Nations for all the unions in Europe. It was a big movement.” he said. “We lit that spark, we lit the fuse.”

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Maher then revealed that several stars had performed at the resort at the time – a list that includes Cher, Elton John and more. But van Zandt stood up for his allies.

“We made a decision: don’t assume they were molested, who they were,” Rocker said of the musicians who performed at the venue. “Let’s not have infighting between the people of the music.”

He said he wanted to keep an eye on his “ball because we had a big goal in mind.”

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Their goal was to eventually “raise enough consciousness” to see the sanctions imposed on South Africa, to pressure them to end apartheid.

Starr said he expected then-President Ronald Reagan to veto the action bill “because he was part of that unholy trinity that supported apartheid—them, [then-British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher and [then-German leader Helmut] Kohl’s.”

He said that Sun City’s “cultural boycott” helped to follow the “sports boycott” of the area. The boycott was followed by economic sanctions.

“Once they came out, [Reagan] We vetoed it and we overrode the veto because we raised consciousness so much,” Van Zant recalled. “The Republicans voted for it. … are voting Republicans so that black people can vote?”

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