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

Steven Van Zandt is perhaps best known for his music and for appearing in “The Sopranos,” but he has also had a remarkable effect on politics and activism.

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

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

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During a performance Friday on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Van Zandt opened up about his time fighting the separation system and received praise from the talk show host for working to change the world.

“There were a lot of people involved, not just us, the four musketeers – me, Danny Schechter, Arthur Baker and Hart Perry – but it was really the UN for all the unions in Europe. It was a big move,” he said. “We turned on the spark, we turned on the fuse.”

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Maher then pointed out that a number of stars appeared at the resort at the time – a list that includes Cher, Elton John and more. But Van Zandt stood up for his colleagues.

Musician Steven Van Zandt was known for creating Artists United Against Apartheid, who performed the song "Sun City" in opposition to apartheid in South Africa.

Musician Steven Van Zandt was known for creating Artists United Against Apartheid, performing the song “Sun City” in opposition to apartheid in South Africa.
(Associated Press)

“We made a decision: let’s assume they were manipulated, which they were,” the rocker said of the musicians who performed at the venue. “Let’s not have fights among the musicians.”

He added that he wanted to keep his “eye on the ball because we had a bigger goal in mind.”

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Their goal was ultimately to “raise awareness enough” to see sanctions imposed on South Africa and pressure them to end apartheid.

Steven Van Zandt is also known as a former member of the E Street Band and for appearing in 'The Sopranos' and 'Lilyhammer'.

Steven Van Zandt is also known as a former member of the E Street Band and for appearing in ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Lilyhammer’.
(Getty Images)

The star said he expected then-President Ronald Reagan to veto the proposed action “because he was part of the unholy trinity that supported him,” [then-British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher and [then-German leader Helmut] Kohl. “

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He noted that the “cultural boycott” of Sun City, which he helped initiate, followed a “sports boycott” of the region. The boycotts were followed by financial sanctions.

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“When they came out, [Reagan] vetoed it, and we overruled the veto because we had raised awareness so much, “Van Zandt recalled. Republicans voted for it. … Republicans vote so black people can vote? “

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