I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City

The tributes to Nelson Mandela, and inspiring quotes of his, are all over the place. For web content providers, it’s tricky to know how soon is too soon to offer more complex commentary on a politician and his legacy. On the one hand, you want to be the first to say anything; on the other, you get mileage (or maybe clickage) out of joining the love fest, and the days between a death and a funeral are usually not the ones when people want to hear about the complications.

Hats off to Thinkprogress for being the first to put together a list – though must everything be a list? – of how forthright Mandela was about challenging U.S. imperialism and corporate interests. The Nation went even further, pointing out some of his major shortcomings as post-apartheid leader, then spinning it to say that the fact that we know any dirt on him is a tribute to the transparency of the South African regime he helped create.

I’ve always felt that here in the U.S. we looked at the South African struggle through the lens of our own Civil Rights movement. As if apartheid was like Jim Crow but more intense, because it’s in Africa and everything’s more intense there, right? Well, not exactly, because for one, that’s not how Mandela understood it. For two, we do him a disservice by equating his journey with ours, when we have been so devastatingly bad at achieving racial justice beyond the most obvious steps of ending legal segregation, and most of that got done fifty years ago.

This morning my friend Rosie Schaap posted the video “(I Ain’t Gonna Play) Sun City” on her Facebook page.

I saw this when I was a teenager in a suburb in New Jersey in the thrall of Bruce Springsteen. It mentions Mandela only in passing: though he was a huge figure, it wasn’t at all clear at the time that he would ever walk out of jail. By comparison, it makes the M.L.K. connection very explicit.

More than anything it strikes me as a time capsule of 1980s pop music, especially of the New York scene. When the music world was fracturing along racial lines, here was a deliciously high profile yet low-fi, inter-racial musical rally that called out Ronald Reagan by name. Unlike most cause songs, it brought people onto the dance floor. The premise was sort of ludicrous: Was Lou Reed’s phone ringing off the hook with offers to play at African resorts? But it was easy to get one’s head around, and it certainly helped politicize me, among many others. Long live South Africa!

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