Cultural Boycott and the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement

Last Revised: 

August 05, 2013

The Palestinian call for cultural boycott draws inspiration from the powerful impact that this strategy had on Apartheid South Africa. Calls for a cultural boycott of South Africa started as early as 1961, when the British Musicians Union decided that members should not perform in South Africa as long as apartheid existed. Further actions were carried out in the UK, Ireland, and the United States among a wide range of cultural workers, including actors, writers, filmmakers, and other artists.

Omar Barghouti states:

“Cultural boycott initiatives against Israel...more often than not cite the boycott of apartheid South Africa as a key reference. This reference is neither coincidental nor rhetorical. It stems from the many similarities between the two cases of colonial oppression...and it aims to highlight the effectiveness and moral unassailability of using the boycott in the cultural sphere to resist a persistent oppressive order that enjoys impunity and ample complicity from the powers that be around the world and to increase the isolation of oppressive regimes, like Israel’s.”

South African Artists Against Apartheid, in a statement of support for the Palestinian call to ask Macy Gray to refrain from performing in Israel, affirmed the important role cultural boycott played in the anti-apartheid movement:

As a people whose parents and grandparents suffered under (and resisted) Apartheid in South Africa, our history is testament to the value and legitimacy that the international boycott had in bringing to an end the Apartheid regime in our country. When artists and sportspeople began refusing to perform in South Africa, the world’s eyes turned to the injustices that were happening here to people of colour. This then created a wave of pressure on politicians and world leaders representing their constituencies, to insist on a regime-change—this contributed to a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa.

South African activists have provided strong arguments supporting the current call for cultural boycott against Israel. In October 2010, Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu backed the public call for a South African group, the Cape Town Opera, to cancel their scheduled performance in Israel, stating:

Just as we said during apartheid that it was inappropriate for international artists to perform in South Africa in a society founded on discriminatory laws and racial exclusivity, so it would be wrong for Cape Town Opera to perform in Israel....The Tel Aviv Opera House is state sponsored. By luring international artists to perform there, it advances Israel’s fallacious claim to being a “civilized democracy.”

In a letter to the Red Hot Chili Peppers on May 23, 2012, South African Artists Against Apartheid wrote:

As South Africans, we recognise the role that internationally-recognised artists like yourselves played in helping us to end apartheid in our country...You performing in Israel will be a slap in the face of Palestinians (who have, since 2005, asked international artists not to perform there) but it will also be tacit support for the Israeli regime and its practices of apartheid.

Such support by South African anti-apartheid activists and the parallels that they draw between Apartheid South Africa and Israel has been essential to strengthening the global cultural boycott movement.

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