Ain’t Gonna Play

This past weekend started off with tonnes o’ summer fun and ended with some heavy reflection.  There was a whole lot going on in the City and on the world stage that took me down some well-travelled paths of both hope and despair.

The 2013 Pride celebrations wrapped up successfully, with all indicators pointing to a good time having been had by all- including the Premier of the Province of Ontario, who participated in most of the events (‘our’ mayor having absented himself once again)- and the excitement is already building for next year’s World Pride Celebration.  A great finish to a week that saw some pretty cool stuff happening- basic human rights-wise– in the US.

Canada Day Spectaculars were held across the country- including in Calgary- where their mayor (a man definitely worth the title) asked his residents to take a day off from the flood clean up and enjoy themselves after all their trials and hard work over the past couple of weeks.  Amazing to see the way that neighbours are helping each other out and moving forward in the face some pretty hefty devastation.

Cmdr. Chris Hadfield sang on Parliament Hill- solidifying his presence as a science celebrity and positive influence for curiosity, education and the arts (not so separate from the sciences it turns out) and bringing smiles to the faces of everyone watching- whether on the Hill or from home (and Metric rocked hard.  As usual).


Egypt is in the middle of crisis (Canada closed its embassy there today), the situation in Syria hasn’t stabilized any, the RCMP stopped a terror plot to blow up the British Columbia legislature…

From genuinely thinking that hey, this world is a pretty great place, back to feeling overwhelmed by power- and hatred-driven craziness.   There was that anomie again, and I was feeling as if attempting to affect change is very much a ‘one step forward, two steps back kind of undertaking.’  Not an ideal way to start the work week.

Add to that the fact that Nelson Mandela has been on my mind- and in the collective thoughts of most of us- I started thinking back to that peculiar period back in the 80’s, when apartheid was still an institutional evil and shameful blemish on the face of the world.

Cruising the YouTube I found this:

(Is that Bono or a leprechaun at 4:28?  And who dances like Peter Wolf?  Ah, memories).

Way back in 1985 I was pretty much oblivious to larger world affairs, including the mounting opposition to the racial segregation that was the institutionalized reality for generations in South Africa.  I was deeply into my books and the music that provided an interesting soundtrack to that period of my life.

I knew that some countries- and the UN- were imposing economic sanctions against the government and growing louder in the condemnation of the system of state-sanctioned racism.

I proudly learned a little piece of Canadian history that noted that Prime Minister Diefenbaker, in 1961, was responsible for breaking the deadlock of Commonwealth leaders regarding whether or not South Africa would remain part of the Commonwealth.  His suggestion that the application not be denied outright, but that racial equality as an important principle of the Commonwealth be emphasized, resulted in South Africa withdrawing its application- a key Canadian contribution to international politics on an important human rights issue.

One would think that the opinions of the West had grown even more opposed to the system of apartheid– the Afrikaans term for ‘a state of being apart’ (there it is again- that irrational fear of the ‘other’)- as the decades of oppression stretched on and the situation grew increasingly violent.  Peaceful protest- by students and labour unions- ended with gunfire and death at the hands of the military powers of the government.

Many strong voices against the government were killed or imprisoned in attempts to silence the opposition and maintain the status quo- even amid increasing international pressures.

The Roman Catholic Church- and its leader Pope John Paul II- stood in solidarity with the chorus against apartheid.  Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu supported the economic boycott of his homeland- despite the hardships it would cause the poorest of the poor.  On the other side, the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa remained committed to the system of apartheid- impeding political reform from within the country.

International sports associations like FIFA banned South Africa from participation in sporting events.  Academic and cultural institutions were encouraged to terminate links with the country as long as racial discrimination continued.

in 1985, (Little) Stevie Van Zandt became involved with the anti-apartheid movement, initially upon hearing that the system was influenced by the American model of Indian reservations.  Since the issues of North America’s First Peoples was a primary focus of Stevie’s interest, the parallels between them and black South Africans struck a particular chord.  While traveling to research his next album, he became particularly upset by the ‘resort’ area, Sun City, a gambling mecca in a bantustan (Bophuthatswana)- a created ‘homeland’- in an impoverished rural area.

He gathered ‘rockers and rappers’ who joined together to speak against the injustice of apartheid and the American government’s official position on South Africa.

As Joey (miss that guy) notes at 2:22- “Constructive engagement (was) Ronald Reagan’s plan.”  Unlike the UN and most of the rest of the Western World, the US government promoted this mandate as an alternative to economic sanctions against South Africa.  (Although Maggie Thatcher echoed the policy during her tenure as British PM).

This political stance meant that only about half of US radio stations played “Sun City”.  But in countries without such resistance to positive and necessary change, the song became a major success- raising awareness and seeking freedom for the entire population of South Africa.

As that awareness continued to grow, the Reagan administration maintained its stance against the ANC and resistance t0 the imposition of trade embargoes and economic sanctions.  But the voices against what Bishop Tutu called “an abomination, an unmitigated disaster” (in a 1984 speech on Capitol Hill) began to increase, even in the conservative US of the 1980’s.

The Republican party turned against its President on this issue, and Congress overrode Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, ending constructive engagement and instituting the imposition of economic sanctions that caused South Africa’s economy to drop to among the lowest in the world.

Between 1990 and 1996 apartheid was systematically abolished.  In April 1994 20,000,000 South Africans cast their votes in the first free elections, and in May of that year Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa’s President.

At times when we seem to be increasingly divided by our differences, it is extremely valuable to remember that we have worked together to affect positive change and to realize the revocation of significant ideological evils- changes that work for our common good and prosperity.

Regardless of particular story variations or political maneuvering for the sake of greed we CAN work together toward what we know is right.  Even when it seems as though our political leaders are all about economic bottom lines and support of the status quo as a means of maintaining power.

Songs like “Sun City” tap into the popular culture to raise awareness and inform those uninterested in bored jaded by the political posturing that detracts from the real issues of rights and freedoms, as the pundits and talking heads spout policies based in ideologies (and stories) that should be left to history.

Once that awareness grows we can collectively tell our elected leaders just exactly where we ain’t gonna play.  History shows us that if enough of us shout it out they do have to listen.

I realized this morning that I didn’t define my terms very well.  Bad Historian.  ‘Constructive engagement’ sounds nice on the face of it- after all, ‘constructive criticism’ is meant to improve the thing being criticised, right?   And being ‘engaged’- in all senses of the word- is also something positive. 

Reagan advocated using incentives rather than sanctions to encourage South Africa to move away from its institutionalized policy of human rights violations.  The reason?  Political expediency.  In the Cold War of the 1980’s, the Reagan Administration feared the growth of communism in Africa, and viewed the white minority government of South Africa as an ally in its prevention. Ignoring a nation’s human rights record in order to further a particular agenda?  Doesn’t sound at all like the Harper government’s relationship with China and their increasing involvement in oil and gas development and their investment in the oilsands at all.

The parallels can be extended to include the West’s intervention- or lack thereof (depending on self-interest) in the various actions taking place in the Middle East, and right here at home to our Idle No More movement.

As Little Stevie wrote, in 1985, “This quiet diplomacy ain’t nothing but a joke.”  It’s time to get back on the right side of history and follow our own example.  Working together we can begin to solve our collective problems so we can stop being “always on the wrong side.”

3 comments on “Ain’t Gonna Play

  1. […] the videos provided a new medium of communication while promoting awareness of various causes and world issues.  Music television was a harbinger of how small the world would become, communications-wise, with […]

  2. […] his distinctive voice to Little Stevie’s movement against apartheid in South […]

  3. colemining says:

    Reblogged this on colemining and commented:

    Nelson Mandela. We knew it was coming. I wrote the post below back when we first started hearing that his health was deteriorating. He is on my mind- and in the hearts of the world- tonight, and will remain there as long as his legacy, wisdom and adherence to the power of forgiveness and love over blind and ridiculous hatred are nurtured and developed.
    He taught the world a lesson that we can’t ever forget. There aren’t a lot of people about whom you can legitimately say that the world would be a drastically different place if it were not for their presence among us. He is one of those very few people.
    I can’t even think clearly right now. My desire to present an adequate remembrance of a man I deeply respected isn’t going to be realized tonight.
    I have to first figure out a way to follow his example and let go of anger- which, evidenced by my most recent new post- has taken up residence somewhere in the back of my skull.
    Even as I mourn with the rest of the world- something (the ‘rest of the world’ part) which provides hope for the return to ideals that support community- I can’t help but feel a renewal of the rage I was feeling yesterday when writing about the nurtured narcissism that has been permitted to run rampant among us.
    Seeing our current world leaders expressing their sadness at the loss of this great man, it’s impossible not to make comparisons. All are lacking. And this is our collective fault.
    We know better. Nelson Mandela showed us how to be better. His words and actions must continue to be an example.
    Almost 30 years ago, Little Stevie was inspired to do his part to create awareness about the great injustice of Apartheid. His actions were informed by the awareness that Nelson Mandela, and others who fought for human rights, brought into the world’s parlance.
    Artists United Against Apartheid generated a new audience and helped to end the travesty of institutionalized racism in South Africa.
    Since I originally wrote this post we have lost Lou Reed- and now Madiba himself. I suggested yesterday that we must start looking outside ourselves and our own narrow interests and start thinking as a community for the betterment- if not the very continuance- of us all.
    On this sad evening I will take some time to reflect with love and respect upon the life of a man who embodied peace and the best motivations of humanity. I hope our current world leaders will be doing the same- and that their tributes tonight and in the days to come will prove to be motivators to follow his example rather than the self-serving lip service that is their regular practice.
    Go in peace, Madiba.
    Thank you.

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