Anti-apartheid Message Purged From 'Freedom Fest'

Posted: June 28, 1988

A billion people are said to have tuned in to the recent London concert to free Nelson Mandela. I was proud to have been one of the artists who took part. The show, televised to 60 countries, provided a rare opportunity to focus the world's attention on South Africa and to educate young people about apartheid.

Unfortunately, here in America that opportunity was squandered by a television broadcast that trivialized the event by deleting virtually every reference to the political situation in South Africa. In the process, the producers censored free expression by many of the participants and probably helped to lower political consciousness more than raise it.

The concert, promoted on radio and television in this country as the ''Freedom Fest," was anything but free, as I realized when I reviewed a tape of the American broadcast. Comments that I made calling South Africa a terrorist state and urging sanctions were heard and seen in Britain - but

somehow did not get across the Atlantic. Harry Belafonte, Whoopi Goldberg and Peter Gabriel, among others, made political statements that were beamed around the world, but zapped in America.

While all the facts are not yet in, it appears that Fox Television Network and Westwood One, the companies that arranged for the syndicated TV and radio transmission, decided that Americans were not interested in learning more about apartheid. When I asked Fox for an explanation, a spokesman said it was company policy not to comment on such matters.

Whatever the reasons, the show was neutered, the issue downplayed and the message muzzled. Celebrity gossip substituted for informational segments and inane chatter depoliticized the coverage. If people didn't know who Mr. Mandela was before tuning in, they weren't any better informed after five hours of programming.

How did this happen? How could Nelson Mandela, jailed for 26 years as the symbol of a nation's hunger for freedom, become an excuse for a "party" that stripped a struggle of its meaning and turned a man of ideas into a poster image? Where were the background reports on why he is in jail, on what he represents?

At the very least these questions lead to others that need to be answered. Who made the decision to sanitize the broadcast? Was there a deal between the promoter and the TV syndicator? Was there pressure from the sponsor? Why weren't the artists told ahead of time?

I, for one, would never knowingly have participated in an event that was to be purged of its "politics," especially when the man being honored is known for his political courage and principles. If the South African Government cannot separate Mr. Mandela from his "politics," neither should we.

"Politics" is, after all, the essence of democracy, freedom and human rights - the principles that separate us from the partisans of apartheid. Every time young people are shielded from this adult monster called ''politics," they are being told "Don't think, don't try to understand, don't act, don't participate in the democratic process." Is it any wonder that apathy and frustration are rampant among the young, that so many of them don't vote?

One would like to think that it is no longer "controversial" to oppose apartheid. Indeed, with the South African Government's press ban already limiting news coverage, networks have a special responsibility to keep us informed.

Obviously, we have to do much more to get communications companies to communicate, to inform as they "entertain," to trust the intelligence of their audience, to serve the public interest.

South Africa crept into our living rooms the Saturday before last in more ways than one, and most of us never even knew it.

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