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South African radicals wanted to kill Paul Simon for violating boycott — Steve Van Zandt

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Steve Van Zandt, photo by Jason Kempin for Getty Images

Steve Van Zandt, photo by Jason Kempin for Getty Images

A week or so ago I ran into Greg Grandin, the author of The Empire of Necessity, the new book on Melville and slavery that has gotten a lot of attention, and he told me about an interview with Steven Van Zandt that was published earlier this year in which the legendary guitarist related that during apartheid days, South African boycotters wanted to kill Paul Simon for violating the boycott.

“And people say BDS’s call for cultural boycott is so frightening!” Grandin said– check out what some folks were saying during South African apartheid days.

“And check out what Van Zandt says about Kissinger, too,” he said. Paul Simon’s friend Henry Kissinger called Mandela a Communist…

Here is the interview: Dave Marsh did it on Sirius radio in December and Backstreets published it in January. If you read the whole thing, you see that Van Zandt is a wonderful moral voice. A guitarist who didn’t think he had a political bone in his body, he became politicized by things he heard when touring Europe, and knew that he had a responsibility to act on that knowledge.

Van Zandt went to South Africa in 1984, when he was 34, to research the anti-apartheid song he published the following year, “Sun City.” Notice how he snapped:

I started to witness the brutality. I remember the day, because I went down there completely open-minded. I was reading in the New York Times about the “reforms” they were putting in place, so I went down there giving them the benefit of the doubt. And I remember the day I was in a taxi cab and a black guy stepped off the curb and [the white taxi-driver] swerved to hit him, [muttering] “Fucking kaffir,” which means “nigger” in Afrikaans. And I said [to myself], “Did I just witness that?”, ‘cause I wasn’t really paying attention [at first.]  And I remember that moment. It just hit me like, okay, these guys gotta go. This is way beyond another song on my next album. I gotta get some attention for this issue and do something about this.

Talk about responsibility. Now here is Van Zandt telling the Paul Simon story.

Van Zandt: You know, when I went down [to South Africa] the first time, I’m trying to do all these meetings. Then I had to do some secret meetings and get away from anyone resembling a handler or political operative. And I snuck into Soweto, where they were under [military isolation.]

Marsh: Yeah, they were surrounded.
So I snuck in and met with AZAPO, the Azanian People’s Organisation, who were like a more radical, violent version of our Black Panthers. They were actually on the front lines blowing shit up and stuff like that. And I had to plead my case to them, because they were sort of the hard line. And I said to them, “Look, all due respect, man, you’re not gonna win this fight. I don’t blame you for picking up guns and defending yourselves.” Because it was brutal; the regime down there was brutality. “I don’t blame you, but you’re not gonna win. You cannot win this way. Let me please try my idea, and I’m gonna win this war for you in the media, on TV.”

Now this already would’ve been a stretch for most people, but when you’re trying to tell this to people who don’t have electricity, that you’re about to win their war on a box that you plug in somewhere, they looked at me like, “This guy is really nuts.” [laughter]

If you thought Stevie’s kidding… the truth of the matter is that South Africa, for a very, very long time, well into the ’70s or early ’80s, did not have television for exactly this reason. There was no television if you’d been talking to a white South African.
Yeah, because when you’d go into Soweto, which was this huge area — I mean, it’s huge — you’d see, like, two or three feet of fog all over the ground. No lights. And it just had this very, very surreal feeling to it, because that was all from the coal-fires and whatever they were burning for heat. So it was like a really interesting movie-scenario sort of thing.

And I met with AZAPO, who had a very frank conversation — I was talking to the translator — about whether they should kill me for even being there. That’s how serious they were about violating the boycott. I eventually talked them out of that and then talked them into maybe going kinda with my thing.

They showed me that they have an assassination list, and Paul Simon was at the top of it. [NOTE: In 1986, Paul Simon recorded tracks for his Graceland album in South Africa, in direct violation of the cultural boycott.] And in spite of my feelings about Paul Simon, who we can talk about in a minute if you want to, I said to them, “Listen, I understand your feelings about this; I might even share them, but… this is not gonna help anybody if you knock off Paul Simon. Trust me on this, alright? Let’s put that aside for the moment. Give me a year or so, you know, six months,” whatever I asked for, “to try and do this a different way. I’m trying to actually unify the music community around this, which may or may not include Paul Simon, but I don’t want it to be a distraction. I just don’t need that distraction right now; I gotta keep my eye on the ball.” And I took him off that assassination list, I took Paul Simon off the U.N. blacklist, trying to…

You mean you convinced them to take him off…
Yeah, because this was a serious thing…

Because this was gonna eat up the attention that the movement itself needed.
Yes, and the European unions were serious about this stuff, man. You were on that [U.N. blacklist], you did not work, okay? Not like America, which was so-so about this stuff, man. Over there, they were serious about this stuff, you know? Anyway, so yeah, this was in spite of Paul Simon approaching me at that party saying, “What are you doing, defending this communist?!”

What he said was, “Ah, the ANC [African National Congress, the organization of which Mandela was President at the time of his arrest and imprisonment], that’s just the Russians.” And he mentioned the group that [murdered black South African activist Steven Biko] had been in, which was not AZAPO…
Was he PAC [Pan-Africanist Congress]?

It doesn’t matter [for this story], but [Paul Simon] said, “That’s just the Chinese communists.”
Yeah, yeah. And he says, “What are you doing defending this guy Mandela?! He’s obviously a communist. My friend Henry Kissinger told me about where all of the money’s coming from,” and all of this. I was, like, all due respect, Paul…

I remember it very vividly, because it was aimed at everybody standing in the general direction.
Yeah, but mostly he was telling me.

Well, yeah, you were the one… Everybody knew who to get mad at first. [laughter]
He knew more than me, he knew more than Mandela, he knew more than the South African people. His famous line, of course, was, “Art transcends politics.” And I said to him, “All due respect, Paulie, but not only does art not transcend politics… art is politics. And I’m telling you right now, you and Henry Kissinger, your buddy, go fuck yourselves.” Or whatever I said. But he had that attitude, and he knowingly and consciously violated the boycott to publicize his record.

Well, to make his record. That’s the violation of the boycott — to make his record.
Yeah, and he actually had the nerve to say, “Well, I paid everybody double-scale.” Remember that one? Oh, that’s nice… no arrogance in that statement, huh? [laughter]

Wow, great. A couple comments. Reflect that boycott became a popular global cause in the South Africa struggle, even though the ANC was not non-violent, even though there were radical elements in the boycott movement that wanted to kill a lot of people. So, can’t we have the same standard for our activism today? Liberation movements aren’t ruined by such associations.

Note Van Zandt’s powerful and brotherly insistence on non-violence: “please try my idea, and I’m gonna win this war for you in the media, on TV.”

The BDS movement is non-violent, that is the great thing about it. Even if, for many of its leaders, it means dismantling the Jewish state, or Jewish privilege, it’s non-violent. And even if its application will cause pain, and I am sure it will and already has, no one is talking about knocking off the Rolling Stones or Leonard Cohen for violating boycott. The BDS National Committee didn’t need Steve Van Zandt to understand the media battle we’re in now.

Finally, I need to mention a post I did a few months ago, from Keith Richards‘ book, Life, when he met the late American musician Gram Parsons in England in 1968 and convinced him to abandon the Byrds’ tour of South Africa, because “they’re not being kind to the brothers.”

[W]e started to talk about South Africa, and Gram asked me, “What’s this drift I’m getting since I got to England? When I say I’m going to South Africa, I get this cold stare.” He was not aware of apartheid or anything. He’d never been out of the United States. So when I explained it to him, about apartheid and sanctions and nobody goes there, they’re not being kind to the brothers, he said, “Oh, just like Mississippi?” And immediately, “Well, fuck that.” He quit that night. He was supposed to leave the next day for South Africa.

1968 Gram Parsons. 1984 Steven Van Zandt. Effective movements take years to build. And yes, we can give good advice.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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21 Responses

  1. lyn117 on May 11, 2014, 11:54 am

    I hadn’t known Paul Simon was so immoral. He should be brought to task for all this, although, I’m sure every interview he conducts is well controlled.

    • eGuard on May 11, 2014, 1:16 pm

      He plays the ignorant for 30 years, that’s his preferred instrument. Also remember that he gained “authors” rights on African rhythms, because a. rhythms are not copyrighted (melody & texts are), and b. he wrote those listener-insulting texts to them. (See also: The Lion Sleeps Tonight rights history). If I could. I surely would.

      But one moral beacon is on the other shore. Miriam Makeba said: Don’t you tell me who I can work with.

    • Ecru on May 12, 2014, 4:01 am

      Immoral certainly seems to be the word. Just look into his relationships with Martin Carthy, Heidi Berg or Los Lobos. A perfect fit then for apartheid South Africa and especially for apartheid Israel – “inventor” of the cherry tomato.

  2. Jackdaw on May 11, 2014, 11:55 am

    Celebrity, Phil. Celebrity.

    • Hostage on May 12, 2014, 3:03 am

      @ Jackdaw replying to your questions here:
      Question: What did Jewish ‘white slavery’ have to do with Zionism?
      Answer: Absolutely nothing.

      I stated that Baron Hirsch’s colonization society was an abject failure and that scams associated with it were a cottage industry. White slavery was one of those scams that became associated with the Zionist colonial societies, their agents on both sides of the ocean, persons posing as their agents, members of the colonial communities, and some of their registered charities that were allegedly engaged in human trafficking. That was a notorious problem according to my grandparents, and the problem was serious enough that it was addressed by Hadassah and a praesidium of the Jewish Colonization Association established for that specific purpose.

      Those sort of allegations and connections are hardly a thing of the past. Israel only responded to the human trafficking problem, after the US tied a portion of its foreign assistance to measures taken to address the issue. From the early 1990s until the mid-2000s, the Israeli sex industry was based on the trafficking of women from the former Soviet Union. Not until a 2001 U.S. State Department report on human trafficking, in which Israel ranked at the third and lowest level, did the government begin taking serious steps to suppress the industry.

      Sheldon Adelson lost a libel lawsuit against a Jewish group which alleged that he financed his pro-Zionist political activities with money earned from prostitution in his casino in Macau.

      BTW. What did Ben Gurion have to do with the Lavon Affair? He had nothing to do with it because he was ‘out of government’ when the event took place.

      Real Answer: Ben Gurion was the Defense Minister and Prime Minister when Unit 131 was established in Egypt, in 1948. The plans to destabilize the region were already developed on his watch. His withdrawal from politics was pre-planned, carefully orchestrated, and merely nominal:

      In reality, while the state was spending millions of pounds on the construction of a “hut” for Ben Gurion in the kibbutz Sdeh Boker in Negev, and on related security and communications arrangements, the Old Man already knew, and informed his collaborators, that his absence from the government would last for two years. Behind the campaign idealizing his withdrawal was a scenario meticulously prepared by him and his men. Even then, just four years after the 1948-49 war, the security establishment was ready with plans for lsrael’s territorial expansion. The armistice lines established in Rhodes, although traced so as to grant Israel over a third more than the territory allotted it by the UN partition resolution in 1947, were considered unsatisfactory by the army, which aspired to recover at least the boundaries of mandate Palestine. Ben Gurion had theorized already about the necessity for Israel to become the regional power in the Middle East. Toward the realization of this goal a strategy for the destabilization of the region also had been drawn.

      — Livia Rokach, Israel’s Sacred Terrorism,

      More to the point, after he returned as Prime Minister, Ben Gurion was still very much a participant in the decade-long cover-up that was perpetrated after Israel’s operatives were caught red-handed with bombs they intended to use in terror attacks against western targets.

      • Jackdaw on May 13, 2014, 12:47 am


        Albert Londres was the world’s first investigative journalist. I read his
        ‘Le Chemin de Buenos Aires (1927)’, which is an expose of the international White Slave trade. He discussion of Jewish White Slavery is minimal and he says absolutely nothing about Zionism. He visited the brothels and interviewed the girls and pimps of Buenos Aires.

        Baron Hirsh fought against white slavery. Read your cites a little more carefully.

        Livia Rokach musings are insubstantial. The overwhelming evidence is that Lavon initiated a rogue operation without informing his superiors.

        BTW Hostage.
        What poses the greater danger to our grand kids future, the I/P conflict or global warming?

  3. LeaNder on May 11, 2014, 12:11 pm

    A friend of mine went there as a student. He worked there as a student in engineering and he came back deeply shocked. It all started when he tried to invite a group of girls that worked in his hotel for an ice cream, apparently.That made him curious. He didn’t even know before there was also a category called ” colored”. He told me. the girls looked Spanish or Italian to him, surely not black. Not that it would have mattered. They told him a wasn’t even meant to talk to them, let alone invite them to anything.

    • LeaNder on May 11, 2014, 12:40 pm

      Afterthought. I was mad at one of my younger sisters once, when I came back home to find out she had developed for whatever reason into a Paul Simon fan. To me that wasn’t music, but some type of shallow musical entertainment. I am sorry to say.

      This is a great oscillating combination of lines of thought Phil, by the way. I will look into the publication….

  4. clenchner on May 11, 2014, 12:14 pm

    Thank god no one got to Zandt to explain to him that he has no right lecturing freedom fighters as a foreign, privileged white man.

    • tree on May 11, 2014, 2:14 pm

      Maybe someone did but it didn’t stop him from talking to people. And he wasn’t “lecturing” the people he met with in South Africa. He was asking them to give his way a try. Simon on the other hand WAS lecturing. And that didn’t stop Van Zandt either. Because the struggle was more important than quibbling about whether someone was “lecturing” him or not.

      BTW, it sounds like you are trying to lecture here. Think about it.

    • RoHa on May 11, 2014, 7:36 pm

      Why wouldn’t he have the right to lecture them? Being foreign, privileged, and white doesn’t mean that what he has to say is automatically wrong.

      • Qualtrough on May 12, 2014, 12:44 am

        Newclench, I was all set to criticize you for your comment, but after several readings I now think it was meant as sarcasm. Did I make the right call?

  5. David Doppler on May 11, 2014, 1:04 pm

    To Simon’s credit, who knew Ladysmith Black Mambambo before Graceland? I’ve since bought one of their albums. I don’t know the South African culture, whether they were viewed as traitors or sell-outs or otherwise disparaged for performing with him then, but who can deny that hearing those harmonies brings a positive intimacy with Black South African culture that is not otherwise available on the other side of the world. If Simon paid them double the going rate then made millions off of his album, he’s exploited them, but he also introduced them to me and many others, so there’s two sides that episode.

    But great work bringing the details of other long struggles against injustice to your readers, whether it is South African Apartheid or the Anti-Slavery movement in the US. To suffer in the moment to no apparent effect is made easier when such suffering is seen in longer time scale, with real justice eventually achieved.

  6. geofgray on May 11, 2014, 2:19 pm

    Paul Simon was just in Ireland at an installation of a piece of art work at Dublin Airport in honor of the late Seamus Heaney. He was pictured in the local papers sitting next to Marie Heaney, the late poet’s wife. Don’t think he knew Heaney’s views on apartheid in South Africa and I/P. I guess for him art still transcends politics.

  7. surewin on May 11, 2014, 2:27 pm

    It has been obvious to me for a long time that Paul Simon is a snake. If I recall correctly, there were people who said that his album “Graceland” was part of the impetus for the end of apartheid, and I don’t think he ever demurred.

  8. HarryLaw on May 11, 2014, 5:26 pm

    “So when I explained it to him, about apartheid and sanctions and nobody goes there, they’re not being kind to the brothers, he said, “Oh, just like Mississippi?” And immediately, “Well, fuck that.” He quit that night”. That’s the way to describe it, keep it simple, South African”Apartheid” and Southern States “segregation” then everyone understands.

  9. DaBakr on May 12, 2014, 12:59 am

    and mean while, in the real [POST Apartheid South Africa] world, the list of big name players eager and happy to play in Israel continues to grow:
    Alicia Keys, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Rihanna, Madonna, Depeche Mode, Moby, the Pet Shop Boys, Aerosmith, Celine Dion, Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Barbra Streisand, and in a couple weeks the Stones.

    And then there is Roger Waters and a couple of other has-beens. hmm. What a crazy world.

    • Ecru on May 12, 2014, 4:37 pm

      Hmm….. Has-beens you say. And here you are listing Depeche Mode, The Pet Shop Boys, Celine Dion(!) and Barbara Streisand (who’s unquestioning support of Israel is hardly news PEP that she is). When was the last time any of these had a top 10 hit? You really don’t do irony do you?

  10. wes on May 12, 2014, 5:34 am

    not sure if i should laugh or cry

    read this………..

    then watch the doco …………. Under African Skies (2012) – IMDb

    then watch this for anc righteousness …………

  11. FreddyV on May 12, 2014, 8:54 am

    Interesting to see how the Stones will get on. I’ve been wondering how Keith is going to square the Israel leg of the tour with his book.

    He’ll probably come up with some pre written ‘Israel is completely different to S.A.’ thing….

  12. RudyM on May 12, 2014, 11:58 am


    Tite Curet Alonso, the legendary 72-year-old Puerto Rican composer, musicologist, and journalist, spent four months helping Paul Simon research roots music for his ill-starred Broadway musical The Capeman. But Alonso says Simon was only interested in adding a slight Latin tint to his own sound, rather than engaging in the kind of cowriting venture that would infuse his score with authentic Afro-Latin color.

    Here’s a Curet Alonso playlist with some of the obvious favorites, starting with the politically charged “Anacaona” (RIP Cheo Feliciano, 1935-2014), about a female Taino leader killed by the Spanish:

    Honestly, while I see it as necessary, I hate the business of cultural boycotts and mixing of moral and political judgment with one’s stance toward art (and especially music, which in essence is more formal and “about” emotion if anything rather than having propositional content–but that’s easy to say when you aren’t on the receiving end of oppression).

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