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Tuku ignores Swazi call for boycott

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At a OSISA brown bag discussion on the role of new media in the pro-democracy struggles in southern Africa on Friday, one participant discussed a current tactic in use by organisers in Swaziland.

He explained that they have launched a cultural boycott, along the lines of the one which deterred artists and athletes from travelling to South Africa during apartheid.

As he described it, a number of artists had already agreed to boycott the Bushfire Festival held over the weekend, including Baba Caiphus Semenya. However, he noted that Oliver Mtukudzi was billed to perform at the festival, and activists had been unable to get in touch with him to advise him not to come. He informed the meeting that Semenya had been tasked with appealing to Tuku directly to encourage him to join the boycott. However, he said, he knew Tuku was a democrat, and he had every confidence that he would heed the boycott call. He said a separate event in South Africa was being planned, to support the artists who had honoured the boycott with a different source of performance revenue.

But a statement released on Tuku’s website Friday afternoon shared that some Swazi activists had allegedly “threatened to harm Tuku with unspecified action” if he performed at the Bushfire Festival. On his website, Tuku said:

“Those who are threatening my life actually need healing themselves and I will ensure my music heals their anger and help them think properly. That is the purpose of art. Music must be a remedy in times of strife and artists must be given a chance to fulfill that obligation.”

He explained that he would be performing at Bushfire as planned, and that:

“The threats don’t deter me from doing my job as an artist. I have a responsibility to help heal where there is conflict. I must unite people where politicians are dividing us. It’s the business of politicians to separate people, as usual, and I am not surprised by the threats. All my life my music has promoted love, peace, tolerance and human rights and must be viewed as such. Thinking otherwise would be unfair.”

Radio VOP reported that Tuku performed on the weekend to around 15,000 people.

Whilst musicians may indeed be able to unite societies and create spaces for dialogue instead of conflict, I can understand the value of a cultural boycott. Amongst other things, it denies a government the revenue, and legitimacy, that international events can provide. The success of the South African example has inspired others to take a similar stance – for example in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict.

As Desmond Tutu said:

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.

In fairness to artists, it’s important that calls for a boycott be clear and consistent. In this case, there was some back-and-forth about whether the boycott was still on, which the Swaziland Solidarity Network (SSN) dismissed as an attempt by the Festival organisers to misinform people that the boycott had been lifted.

Certainly, threatening someone’s safety should they come and perform falls more in the category of blackmail than persuasion.

But activist organisations like the Swaziland Solidarity Network insist the boycott is on, and will remain until Swaziland is democratised. For years, Zimbabweans have asked others in the region to support our efforts to democratise. With artists like Caiphus Semenya, Professor, L’Vovo Derrango, and Deep House DJ Black Coffee supporting the Swazi boycott, what will it take for artists like Tuku to follow suit?

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