In 1948 with the election of the National Party and the enforcement of an Apartheid State, it took time for the world to take notice and action. That said, one year before the implementation of formal Apartheid in 1947, India had been the first international country to appeal to the UN on the basis of how South African Indians were being wrongfully racially segregated and treated unjustly. At that stage the UN ignored the claims.

Appealing to the UN was one form of putting international pressure on the Apartheid government to change its policies but it was certainly not the only form. It can, for instance, equally be argued that the Academic and Cultural Boycott, along with other trade embargos, were more helpful in ending Apartheid than domestic economics and internal pressures.

An academic and cultural boycott calls for all artists, academics, philosophers and cultural practitioners to refuse to participate in any activities, conferences, concerts, exhibitions or any other related field in the country which is being boycotted. To this end, in May 1989, the African National Congress (ANC) produced a Cultural Boycott Policy document which read as follows:

“No cultural workers, artists, sportspersons or academics should be permitted to travel to South Africa to perform or impart their services and their expertise, save and except in those instances where such travel is clearing in the furtherance to national democratic struggle or any of its objectives.”

Going back to 1927 the Pact Government passed the Native Administration Act and included a ‘Hostility Clause’ which restricted any actions which might cause hostility between Black and White people. The State used this clause as a to tool to censor the voices of newspapers and media. This not only limited information within the country but also the cultural voices from the international community. One could then assert that the boycott of knowledge and culture came from the ruling party as they were the ones restricting information.

The ANC’s original call for a cultural academic and cultural boycott occurred in December 1958 at the All African People Conference in Accra, Ghana. This initially called for an academic boycott to protest South African Apartheid. The call was repeated the following year in London.

The call for a boycott gained international traction as the situation in South Africa gained more press coverage. The year 1959 began a long commitment from Britain and the support for the fall of Apartheid.  British politicians and activists worked with Fenner Brockway (1888 - 1998) of the Movement for Colonial Freedom and Reverend Michael Scott of the Africa Bureau and other ANC and opposition leaders to promote the boycott as 'A Great Moral and Positive Weapon' against Apartheid. Brockway was a British politician and anti-war activist who worked throughout his life on anti-colonialism as well as other humanitarian causes of the twentieth century. In France, Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the world’s most renowned and respected academics and philosophers, gave a press statement at the conference of the French Liaison Committee against Apartheid entitled, “Those who are Confronting Apartheid should know they are not Alone.” 

It was ten years after the ANC’s original call for a boycott, in 1968, that the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted its first resolution, which supported the call to create sanctions against the Apartheid regime. That same year, Gram Parsons resigned from the popular American band, The Byrds, rather than go on a tour of Apartheid South Africa.

In 1980, with international pressure mounting, the UN General Assembly constituted Resolution 35/206, which stated that (Summary): “The United Nations General Assembly makes the request to all states to prevent all cultural, academic, sporting and other exchanges with South Africa. This is also an appeal to writers, artists, musicians and other personalities to boycott South Africa. It urges all academic and cultural institutions to terminate all links with South Africa."


Compliance with the UN endorsed international boycott of South Africa was not universally respected. The music industry, especially American record companies, profited greatly from not adhering to the UN mandated boycott. For example in 1981, Frank Sinatra was paid 1.79 million US dollars for nine concerts, the largest of which was held at Sun City Casino with a massive entertainment complex located in Bophutswana. Other artists who broke the boycott for the very well paid gigs were: Queen, Rod Stewart, Cher, Curtis Mayfield, the Beach Boys, Village People and Tina Turner to name but a few.

It was not only White performers who broke with the boycott either. Millie Jackson, an African-American performer, toured South Africa in 1980. During her tour she even met with members of the Music Drama Arts and Literature Institute (MDALI) and the with Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), and is on record stating that she was not a politician and only wanted the money, although she has since denied making these remarks. Jackson was by no means the only African American performer who ignored the cultural boycott or failed to understand the conditions of the majority of South Africans during Apartheid. On 19 October 1981 AZAPO made a request to Ray Charles to cancel a concert on in honour of Black Conscious day and he refused. The Sowetan Times also has a statement from Candi Staton indicating that she had never heard of Soweto and was under the impression that Blacks and Whites lived communally.

Paul Simon also came to South Africa to record the album Graceland, which was released in 1986. There remains some controversy around Simon’s breaking of the boycott, however, in that he argued that his relationship with South Africa ultimately sought to promote South African musicians. It is noted, for example, that he headlined a concert with Anti-Apartheid stalwarts Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Ladysmith Black Mambazo in Zimbabwe in 1987. However, the Artists Against Apartheid and other anti-Apartheid activist organisations claimed Simon’s involvement with South Africa to be breach of the cultural boycott. Dali Tambo, for instance, stated that Simon put the ambitions of a few artists above the liberation of a whole Nation. ‘The UN Special Committee Against Apartheid placed Paul Simon on its register of artists who had broken the boycott’ and protests were then often found outside of Simon’s concerts. 

During Apartheid, the proceeds from music sales and concerts came almost exclusively from the White minority, who earned on average twelve times that of the average Black person. In 1980, with tapes costing in the realm of 8 dollars and concert tickets costing 10, the need to worry about mixed seating became practically a mute point. It was at this same time that the majority of the Black population subsisted on an income of less than $152 a month per family, the official poverty level.’ By this time the UN was appealing directly to artists, writers and everyone else in the Arts to boycott South Africa.

The USA under Reagan was notorious for voting against UN clauses in relation to anti-colonial practices. This was mainly to do the huge economic partnership between the USA and South Africa. This made it difficult for anti-apartheid activists to convince American artists of the ‘criminal complexities’ that came with performing in South Africa.

Anti-Apartheid Protest from Artists outside of SA

In 1983 Oliver Tambo’s son, Dali Tambo, started the group ‘Artists Against Apartheid,’ alongside British musician Jerry Dammers of the well-known ska band, The Specials. The organisation put on several anti-apartheid concerts throughout Europe. One of the most successful concerts took place in July 1986 at Clapham Common. Future South African President Thabo Mbeki gave a speech at the festival, which was attended by 250,000 people.

Another group in the USA, ‘Artists United Against Apartheid’ began in 1985 and was co-founded by performer Steven Van Zandt and record producer Arthur Baker.  They wrote and produced a protest song “Sun City” which had moderate success and proceeds of over a million dollars, which went to anti-apartheid activist groups. Artists included on the track included: Kool DJ Herc, Grandmaster Melle Mel, Ruben Blades, Bob Dylan, Pat Benatar, Herbie Hancock, Ringo Starr and his son Zak Starkey, Lou Reed, Run–D.M.C., Peter Gabriel, Bob Geldof, Clarence Clemons, David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks, Darlene Love, Bobby Womack, Afrika Bambaataa, Kurtis Blow, The Fat Boys, Jackson Browne, Daryl Hannah, Peter Wolf, Bono, George Clinton, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Bonnie Raitt, Hall & Oates, Jimmy Cliff, Big Youth, Michael Monroe, Stiv Bators, Peter Garrett, Ron Carter, Ray Barretto, Gil Scott-Heron, Nona Hendryx, Lotti Golden, Lakshminarayana Shankar and Joey Ramone.

Other artists, it might be noted, refused to perform in the anti Apartheid concert, even with offers of millions of dollars. Amongst these were: Roberta Flack, Elton John, the Floaters and the Jacksons.


One can never be 100% sure how effective a boycott is. There are no statistics to monitor. What one can be sure to say is that it brings publicity and awareness to the massive inhumane behaviors of a State. By having the boycott, that it itself is a monitor. Culture, arts and academics are the fields which offer a landscape to express the time in which a people, community or generation exist. The academic and cultural boycott is an act of solidarity with those who are living with the injustices of a regime or state who is not adhering to the rules of the world set by the United Nations and pure human decency.

Both the internal state of affairs and the international condemnation of the racist regime helped lead the way to the end of the Apartheid State. The release of Nelson Mandela on 11 February 1990 is what began the long talks between the National Party and the African National Congress, and ultimately the beginning of Democratic rule in South Africa. In November 1993 Prime Minister de Klerk agreed to democratic elections for the country and on 27 April 1994, Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s first elected Black President. All UN Sanctions were lifted and the international community embraced a democratic South Africa economically, academically and culturally.

Since the positive effects of the South African Cultural Boycott, the Palestinian ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ (BDS) movement to boycott Israeli goods and cultural products commenced in 2005, and comparisons are often made between the two countries in their arguments for the cultural boycott of an oppressive state. BDS has been endorsed by scores of South Africans, including Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who made the following public statement in 2014:

"I have witnessed the systematic humiliation of Palestinian men, women and children by members of the Israeli security forces...Their humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government."

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