When a long (ish) life means you find yourself with feet on either side of a divide that separates one era from another, it can be interesting to realise how a personal living memory is little more than a Wikipedia entry to those who emerge in the years and decades after the world map is redrawn. Unencumbered by any remembrance of how things used to be, those for whom the Iron Curtain or Apartheid are as irrelevant to the here and now as Ancient Egypt or the Incas invariably see the past in a completely different light. I guess for anyone of a certain age – i.e. over 40 – the demolition of the Berlin Wall and the release of Nelson Mandela had an immense significance that is difficult to articulate to someone born after 1990; and, to be honest, it can sometimes be easy to forget the way things were even if you were there. I remember once watching a documentary about Live Aid in which a member of Paul Weller’s Style Council recalled how the band had a testing journey to reach Wembley Stadium on the day, flying from an overseas tour that required taking the long way round on account of not being able to venture into Soviet airspace. The recollection served as a reminder of just how different the global situation was then.
A couple of decades earlier, when television satellite technology was in its infancy, an attempt to link up the four corners of the globe for the first time in the groundbreaking ‘Our World’ broadcast was confronted by an effective no-fly zone when Eastern Europe declined to participate; the programme may best be remembered for the unveiling of ‘All You Need is Love’, but the ambitious aim of the enterprise was squandered by the opting out of Iron Curtain countries. Back then, the Eurovision Song Contest was the optimistic TV showcase for post-war European harmony, though no East European countries ever took part bar Yugoslavia. At the same time, however, Eastern Bloc sportsmen and athletes competed in events such as European club football tournaments and the Olympic Games, and there was also the cerebral Cold War clash on the chessboard that came with the infamous battle between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in 1972; so at least the East had a degree of visibility denied South Africa during the 70s and 80s.
Often it was sport that provided the most high profile example of South Africa’s international isolation, notably cricket and rugby union, when regular tours by South African teams were scrubbed off the sporting schedule from the early 70s onwards – a situation it had actually taken a surprisingly long time for the rest of the world to agree on. Once agreed, however, the boycott was enforced with a heavy dose of moral and emotional pressure imposed on those who wavered from it. Hard to remember the uproar now when so-called ‘rebel tours’ of South Africa by cricketers took place in the 80s or when the likes of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Queen, Status Quo, Sinatra and even Shirley Bassey played profitable gigs in Sun City. Anyone named and shamed for participating in breaking the boycott was severely criticised thereafter; Freddie Mercury and the lads were added to the UN’s blacklist of sanctions-breakers following their ill-timed 1984 concert at the luxury resort, which took place at a point when serious civil unrest in South Africa had highlighted the injustices of the regime for the world to see once again.
The cultural Apartheid could also extend into some bizarre areas. Clout were a relatively inoffensive all-female rock band – itself something of a novelty in the 70s – who enjoyed the dubious status of one-hit wonders via their 1978 smash by the name of ‘Substitute’; the record stalled at the No.2 spot behind the immovable ‘You’re The One That I Want’ for several weeks that summer, yet ‘Top of the Pops’ had to settle for airing a clip of the band on a foreign TV show as the blanket ban on all things South African meant Clout were prevented by the Musicians’ Union from appearing in-person on the nation’s most-watched music show. The anti-Apartheid crusade was a particular passion for the Left in the 80s, and then – as now – the Left tended to monopolise the creative industries, meaning the boycott was the leading cause of the day in a way Palestine has become in the 21st century. Artists were expected to fall into line and most of those with any sort of conscience did so. The white South African was a cultural bogeyman during this period, so much so that a South African-born actor like the recently-deceased Anthony Sher was in denial of his origins when trying to make it as a thespian in the UK, conscious that he’d be confronted by a degree of prejudice that could jeopardise his ambitions.
Perhaps more than any other form of sanctions, a cultural boycott tends to be effective. A country’s art, along with its sport, can often be the way it successfully sells itself on the world stage. For example, what do most people immediately think of when they think of a country like Brazil? The Bossa Nova might spring to mind, but chances are the Brazilian football team will get there first every time. Likewise, during the era of the Soviet Union it was Russian composers and musicians sharing the international spotlight with athletes like Olga Korbut that offered a far more positive image than Leonid Brezhnev observing the parade of nuclear missiles on May Day. The USSR may be defunct as a nation now, but Russia has continued this tradition to project a less-toxic brand to the world; the coup of hosting what turned out to be a highly enjoyable World Cup in 2018 was a great leap forward that even managed to edge the country’s appalling record of using performance-enhancing drugs at the Olympics off the back pages. Recent events have put the brakes on this progress.
In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the universal cultural condemnation has been swift and fairly unprecedented – nowhere more than on the football pitch. After announcing that the prestigious Champions League Final, scheduled to be staged in St Petersburg, has been moved to Paris, UEFA then linked arms with FIFA and barred all Russian clubs and the national side from competing in domestic and international competitions as well as the former dropping its sponsorship deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom. The close ties many oligarchs and Russian corporations have developed with numerous Premier League clubs in this country has been uncomfortably underlined this past week, resulting in Manchester United and Everton cancelling sponsorship deals with Russian companies; but perhaps Roman Abramovich deciding to put Chelsea up for sale is the most notable rat looking for the lifeboats.
Elsewhere in the world of sport, the Formula 1 Russian Grand Prix has been cancelled whilst Russia and its warmongering sidekick Belarus have both been banned from rugby union competitions by the sport’s governing body. The International Olympic Committee may have taken away the rights of Russia and Belarus to host sporting events, but initially allowing the nations to compete in Olympic tournaments under a ‘neutral’ flag received such severe criticism that the IOC has now announced the two countries will not be participating in the upcoming Winter Paralympics. In the arts, a prominent scalp came in the sacking of Valery Gergiev as conductor of the Munich Philharmonic; Gergiev, known to be favourable towards Putin, failed to condemn the invasion of Ukraine and after the orchestra was confronted by a string of cancellations, the Mayor of Munich fired him from his position.
Unlike the usual suspects of ill-informed Hollywood halfwits queuing-up to signal their virtue, the cultural boycott when applied across the board has a habit of hitting the target where it hurts. It can’t stop a war, but it can rob those in whose name the war is being fought of all the things that can truly enhance life. It’s worth a try.
© The Editor