Steven Van Zandt Tells The Story Of “Sun City” And Fighting Apartheid In South Africa

The musician and actor talks about his role as activist and how he brought together a who’s who of 80s superstars for “Sun City.”

Steven Van Zandt Tells The Story Of “Sun City” And Fighting Apartheid In South Africa
[Image: Classic Rock Magazine | Getty Images]

A bittersweet sort of punctuation to the global mourning of South African leader Nelson Mandela came this week with the news of Idris Elba’s Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of the revolutionary politician in Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom. That film is only the latest mark that Mandela, and the struggles of apartheid-era South Africa, have made on art and pop culture since the 80s (Elba is the fifth actor to portray Mandela in a feature since 2007).


A much earlier, musical, statement about apartheid in South Africa may have been forgotten among the tributes to Mandela–the song “Sun City,” recorded by Artists United Against Apartheid–but the project was remarkable for the sheer heft of the artists involved and, it turns out, for the ambitions of its creator. The song was recorded shortly after USA For Africa released “We Are The World,” but aside from the fact that both tracks were recorded by a one-time assembly of superstars, they have little in common: “We Are The World” is a syrupy lecture about how Americans need to save the poor, while “Sun City” is a party jam in which 50 of the most famous musicians in the world pledged a cultural boycott against South Africa. The song’s refrain–“I, I, I, I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City!”–was a reference to the Sun City casino resort in South Africa, which booked major rock and pop acts.

The song was the brainchild of Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Band member who had split from Bruce Springsteen’s outfit the year prior. Van Zandt wrote and produced the song and, with the help of journalist Danny Schechter, recruited the entire array of stars who’d participate. But writing a song expressing support for the cultural boycott wasn’t the limit of Van Zandt’s involvement in the fight against apartheid. Co.Create caught up with Van Zandt after the death of Nelson Mandela, and the songwriter, guitar player, and Sopranos and Lillyhammer star recounted his entire history with the movement–from meeting revolutionaries on the ground in Africa to getting into the studio with Miles Davis to record “Sun City,” and more. Here’s what he told us.

Learning The Issues

I had been researching American foreign policy post-World War II just to educate myself, which I had never done, being obsessed with rock n’ roll my whole life. I was quite shocked to find that we were not always the good guys. So I decided to write about that in my solo records, and dedicate my five-record solo career to that learning process, and also combine a bit of journalism with the rock art form.

I was the only one who actually went down to South Africa. Very few people ever went down there, even all of the activists who became involved later. So I was seeing it firsthand, and meeting with Tutu and all of the union people and different religious leaders, just getting a feeling for the whole thing and it was intense, man. It was a very, very intense moment. It did not feel like it was inevitable that this thing was going to change. They could have held on for a long time and pretended they were doing reforms. Because look how far away it is. Who cares? They were very careful about who they let in and when the politicians or somebody went down there, they knew what to show them. They were very clever. And I would sneak out at night because I knew I had people watching me, to just get the real story. It was a very interesting moment to exist. I had to commit myself to doing something about it and that’s what happened along the way. I was just trying to write my records and do some research, but occasionally you get so emotionally engaged in something that you had to just get involved and that was one of them.

The economic boycott against South Africa had yet to gain the support of the U.S. and Great Britain, but the UN had called for a cultural and sports boycott. Van Zandt believed that was the right idea, although Paul Simon, who recorded Gracelandin South Africa, disagreed. When meeting with revolutionaries, Van Zandt says that he expressed his support for the idea that the cultural boycott could lead to the end of apartheid.


Embracing The Cultural Boycott

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street BandImage: Flickr user Wonker

I had to sneak into Soweto under a military embargo to meet with AZAPO, the Azanian People’s Organization, who were kind of a more radical violent version of the Black Panthers. I had to go to Zimbabwe to meet with the ANC.

Sometimes they had a little trouble taking me seriously because of the way I looked, but that only lasted about thirty seconds into the conversation, and then they knew I was serious as a heart attack. But my crazy hippie look really helped with the regular people I had to talk to because I had a lot going against me: I was white, I was American, and I have a Dutch name, which is basically the Afrikaaner thing. But as clever as that government was, and the people of course knew how clever they were, they figured they’re not this crazy, to have this guy dressing up like this as a government agent. They just felt I was one step too far, even for the South African government.

It wasn’t easy to talk to the revolutionary factions because they were engaged in the armed struggle. I sat down with AZAPO and the ANC and I just said, “Listen, all due respect. You’re not going to win this war with guns, okay? I don’t blame you for fighting back, but that’s not the way to win it.” I said, “We can win this thing on TV. That’s how we’re going to win this war,” and they looked at me like I had two heads. I’m trying to tell people we can win this war on TV and meanwhile they don’t have electricity in Soweto. That’s when I had the discussion with them. Paul Simon had decided that he knew better than Mandela, he knew better than the South African people, and he was going to knowingly and consciously violate the boycott. He said to me that art transcends politics and I said, “Paul, not only does art not transcend politics, art is politics.”

In spite of all of that going on, I’m down there and AZAPO–at the top of their assassination list is Paul Simon. I’m like, “Do me a favor. The war I’m about to fight is a tricky one in the media. It’s a modern way of fighting the war. It’s not going to help if you assassinate Paul Simon, okay?” Because they were looking at it like, “You kill me, I kill you, and whoever kills the most wins.” That was the level of the fucking struggle and that point.

Van Zandt decided that, in order to support the cultural boycott, he would recruit other musicians to record “Sun City.” The list of artists who agreed to participate is a who’s-who of the pop world in 1985: Bob Dylan, Hall & Oates, Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Run-DMC, Ringo Starr, Herbie Hanckock, Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton, Bonnie Raitt, Gil-Scott Heron, Jackson Browne, Jimmy Cliff, Keith Richards, Miles Davis, and more all recorded the song. Ultimately, it yielded more than just a single–Artists United Against Apartheid released an entire album, in which various participants in the project recorded different songs that came out of this process.


“Sun City”

Steven Van Zandt in “Sun City”

I thought in order to change the system, we need to enforce this cultural boycott as a means of getting to the economic boycott, which is really where the action is. I’d noticed that the sports boycott, which was in place, was very effective. The Afrikaaner were extremely upset they couldn’t compete in the Olympics. They were very, very competitive. So I thought, that’s an interesting weakness. Now let’s take it to the cultural side, which is something that we can do as artists, and I’ll use Sun City as this symbol of apartheid. They were over-paying everybody to come down there and perform at Sun City, so I decided to use that as a symbol, and told myself if I could really tighten up the cultural boycott we could then make the next move toward the economic boycott.

I got home and I called a friend named Danny Schechter, who was a news guy, and he became my sort-of partner on it. We then engaged Arthur Baker to use his studio, and Arthur would end up co-producing everything with me. Then we brought in Hart Perry, a friend of ours to do the video taping. I’d call Hart Perry two o’clock in the morning and say, “Wake up. Miles Davis just walked in. Grab your video camera and come down.” Everybody who came in I either had them sing the entire song, not knowing which line they would end up singing, or I had them express themselves any way they wanted to having to do with the subject of South Africa. One of our concepts was to make sure we had this new thing called rappers on the record. I wanted to make sure they were included, so we ended up doing a whole hip hop montage sort of thing with Gil Scott-Heron at the root of it. Gil Scott-Heron had the first song, that I know of, about South Africa called “Johannesburg,” so that turned into a really cool thing. And then Peter Gabriel came in and he did a whole thing–he started just kind of improvising something and we ended up adding drums, added some chord changes to it, and before you know it…

Miles Davis came in and did six minutes–the entire track was six minutes, or so and I knew I could only use him on the first fifteen seconds of the opening moment, maybe again in the middle for ten seconds, but I wasn’t about to leave five and a half minutes of Miles Davis on the floor. It turned into a legitimate album, a very, very interesting one, I think. The song was done, and everybody sang it, and then I ended up with 13 reels of tape times 24 tracks each. I had to figure out how to turn that into two tracks, so it was the toughest mix ever, and very tough to sort out who was going to sing which line. That was not easy, but in the end the song stayed intact. Right from the beginning the song was a song, but these other things became the rest of the album.

Van Zandt had publicly left Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band in 1984, but for this project, he reunited with The Boss. Other artists, like Miles Davis, were a major coup for the musician to bring into the project.

I had kept a line open for Bruce Springsteen from day one. At that point, this was like ’85 or so, and I’d left the band. I had produced most of Born in the USA, but then I had left before the tour. So I was holding a line for him. Miles, I was really, really hoping. It was a long-shot that I could get him, but we ended up having the same soundman from my solo tour and got to him that way. I’ve always had a reluctance to meet my heroes. I really try to avoid that as much as I can, just in case they turn out to be assholes. I won’t ever be able to listen to them again and the music, of course, of my heroes is so important to me that I never wanted to take that chance. But I ended up producing fifty of my heroes on this one.


Once the project started to attract some of the bigger stars, other artists asked if they could be involved. Van Zandt tried to coordinate the project so that only artists he felt had something to say were involved–and that included a number of rappers, despite the questions that some in the project had about that decision.

They started coming in from all over the place, but I wanted people who had done something or said something with their work in the past. Hall and Oates, for instance, had literally turned them down, turned Sun City down. And we were politicizing people as we went. It was amazing–Joey Ramone, it was the most political thing he’d ever done, and Lou Reed, those kind of people whose heart would have been in the right place, but it was the first time they’d actually made that commitment across the line into actually saying something specifically about it.

Meanwhile, the first couple of rap records had just come out. Early Melle Mel, Afrika Bambaataa, early Run DMC. The industry was just trying to ignore them, hoping it would go away. They hadn’t quite realized yet what a bonanza it was about to be for their whole industry. I felt the black artists had been struggling their entire careers to express themselves, where the white guys were almost expected to express themselves, at least since Bob Dylan. But Marvin Gaye had to fight to get “What’s Going On” out. Stevie Wonder had to fight. Miles Davis had to fight his whole life against racism. I wanted to put these young rappers right next to Miles Davis and Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen, and make a point that these guys were just as valid. That was a radical, radical notion. I can’t tell you how many people came to me and said, “What are you doing?”

The Sun City Casino and Resort immediately suffered from the boycott, as well–but that was just the beginning of the cultural change that was happening.

The Aftermath

Nobody ever went back to Sun City again. That was totally successful in terms of the cultural boycott. It became, overnight, completely successful, which led to again, within a very short time, returning to the economic boycott, which I knew the government could not survive.


The idea for the project was to not only get a groundswell going, but also hopefully to reach the Congressmen and Senators. I went and spoke with the Senate and believe me, there were congressmen and Senators that couldn’t find South Africa on a map, okay? I measured out success by the fact that their sons and daughters came home saying, “What’s this South Africa thing, Daddy? What’s going on?”, because they were seeing it on MTV and BET. I was able to measure our success through the sanctions bill coming up. Reagan predictably vetoed it, and for the first time we overturned his veto. That’s how I measured our success. “Okay, we have now done our job,” because I knew once that cultural boycott translated into the economic boycott that was the beginning of the end, and sure enough it fell like dominoes.

I did nothing but international liberation politics for ten years and usually it was like you gain an inch, you lose a half an inch. It’s slow going, man. Politics, in general, when you’re trying to change the world for the better in any kind of way, no matter how small or how big, it’s inches. This was the only clear-cut victory I’ve ever known, I’ve ever been associated with, and frankly, that I’ve ever heard of.  

After Mandela was released, Van Zandt says that he was invited to attend his inauguration. He declined.

They wanted me to go down in Air Force Two to be at Mandela’s inauguration and I was just like, “That just does not feel appropriate. My thing was speak for them while they can’t speak for themselves. Speak for Mandela while he’s in jail. Now that he’s out, go talk to him. I’m not going to stand there and pretend to be a hero.” I only did it because I was embarrassed by my government’s policies. I’m not going to go down there and celebrate it, celebrate my country’s bad ideas. Of course I was proud that we were successful and all that, but I wasn’t about to stand there like some kind of hero. It just did not feel appropriate to me.

Van Zandt seems confident taking credit for the song re-energizing the anti-apartheid movement in 1985.


It made a big, big noise in America and England, in Europe. It just completely re-energized the entire movement, which it really frankly needed at the time. We had that ability with that kind of firepower. They want to ignore you. It’s only when you get in their face and they can’t ignore you that you might get something done. We can look back on it now as some very enjoyable nostalgia, because we won.

About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club