Humanities Moments

How MTV Helped End Apartheid

Contributed by Patrick Touart, born 1973, public school teacher, Pittsylvania County Virginia
Sun City logo
I first discovered what being a global citizen meant when I was just thirteen and a part of the MTV Generation. MTV debuted in 1981, but in rural Virginia I didn’t get my MTV until 1986. It was the era of the super group. The famine relief charity, Band Aid, had surprised everyone with the hit “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” That was followed with the spectacular success of “We are the World”. The idea of the super group wasn’t new, but this super group was like nothing I had ever seen.
Every face that flashed by seemed either fascinatingly original or historic or both like Dylan, Miles Davis, Springsteen, Pete Townshend, Run-DMC, Bono, Kurtis Blow, Joey Ramone, and The Rolling Stones! These were just a few of the musicians that created United Artists against Apartheid. A super group formed not just for charity, but for protest. I didn’t know most of the artists, but with the ones I knew I was immediately hooked. These weren’t new wave singers or pop stars, these were rockers and rappers. These were my heroes singing about a place called Sun City.
In the days of no internet, my only choice was the public library where normally I used the children’s section, but this time was different. I went and met the adult librarian and explained my interest in South Africa and Sun City. She led me to a card catalog and then taught me how to look up things on microfilm. Here I discovered the horrors of apartheid. She directed me to Archbishop Tutu’s calls for stiff sanctions on his own country in the New York Times.
What was I to do? I had to write my first letter to my representative, supporting something called the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. I received a nice letter thanking me for writing in support of the measure and behaving in such a fine civic matter. I was so excited, this is what democracy was supposed to look like. You write a letter and your bill gets passed! To my disbelief, President Reagan vetoed the bill, and then Congress overrode his veto!
That summer MTV played the video “Biko” by Peter Gabriel in heavy rotation and I committed to raise awareness about apartheid. The song had a new video to coincide with the release of the movie, Cry Freedom. A fantastic film about the life of the slain leader Steve Biko, starring Denzel Washington. “Biko” was such a powerful song that it inspired me to join Amnesty International and buy my first Free Mandela shirt to wear to school. Its lyrics with their harsh simplicity cut to the core of his murder. Gabriel’s performance at Live Aid 1986 for Amnesty was absolutely mind blowing. I wanted to show my classmates the injustice of apartheid and the brutality of this racist system. While I had never traveled to South Africa, I could feel the pain of people trapped in the townships forced to suffer under an oppressive government. Then the day came in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa and apartheid was over. As Mandela was fond of saying “What's past is past. We look to the future now.”
I felt a sense of triumph and purpose, I had been a very tiny part of a cause greater than myself and I had been on the right side of history. I had been teaching for 16 years in 2003, when I had the chance to watch with awe as Gabriel sang to a packed stadium in Cape Town “Biko” to Mandela. My humanities moment was being awakened to the world outside my doorstep by the global revolution of music television and empowered to help make it a better place.

Title

How MTV Helped End Apartheid

Description

I first discovered what being a global citizen meant when I was just thirteen and a part of the MTV Generation. MTV debuted in 1981, but in rural Virginia I didn’t get my MTV until 1986. It was the era of the super group. The famine relief charity, Band Aid, had surprised everyone with the hit “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” That was followed with the spectacular success of “We are the World”. The idea of the super group wasn’t new, but this super group was like nothing I had ever seen.
Every face that flashed by seemed either fascinatingly original or historic or both like Dylan, Miles Davis, Springsteen, Pete Townshend, Run-DMC, Bono, Kurtis Blow, Joey Ramone, and The Rolling Stones! These were just a few of the musicians that created United Artists against Apartheid. A super group formed not just for charity, but for protest. I didn’t know most of the artists, but with the ones I knew I was immediately hooked. These weren’t new wave singers or pop stars, these were rockers and rappers. These were my heroes singing about a place called Sun City.
In the days of no internet, my only choice was the public library where normally I used the children’s section, but this time was different. I went and met the adult librarian and explained my interest in South Africa and Sun City. She led me to a card catalog and then taught me how to look up things on microfilm. Here I discovered the horrors of apartheid. She directed me to Archbishop Tutu’s calls for stiff sanctions on his own country in the New York Times.
What was I to do? I had to write my first letter to my representative, supporting something called the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. I received a nice letter thanking me for writing in support of the measure and behaving in such a fine civic matter. I was so excited, this is what democracy was supposed to look like. You write a letter and your bill gets passed! To my disbelief, President Reagan vetoed the bill, and then Congress overrode his veto!
That summer MTV played the video “Biko” by Peter Gabriel in heavy rotation and I committed to raise awareness about apartheid. The song had a new video to coincide with the release of the movie, Cry Freedom. A fantastic film about the life of the slain leader Steve Biko, starring Denzel Washington. “Biko” was such a powerful song that it inspired me to join Amnesty International and buy my first Free Mandela shirt to wear to school. Its lyrics with their harsh simplicity cut to the core of his murder. Gabriel’s performance at Live Aid 1986 for Amnesty was absolutely mind blowing. I wanted to show my classmates the injustice of apartheid and the brutality of this racist system. While I had never traveled to South Africa, I could feel the pain of people trapped in the townships forced to suffer under an oppressive government. Then the day came in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa and apartheid was over. As Mandela was fond of saying “What's past is past. We look to the future now.”
I felt a sense of triumph and purpose, I had been a very tiny part of a cause greater than myself and I had been on the right side of history. I had been teaching for 16 years in 2003, when I had the chance to watch with awe as Gabriel sang to a packed stadium in Cape Town “Biko” to Mandela. My humanities moment was being awakened to the world outside my doorstep by the global revolution of music television and empowered to help make it a better place.

Source

Artists Against Apartheid Video - Sun City

Date

Spring of 1986

Contributor

Patrick Touart, born 1973, public school teacher, Pittsylvania County Virginia

Identifier

how-mtv-helped-end-apartheid

Referrer

At the National Humanities Center in May, 2017

Location