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Reader Comment : Laughing At The Darkness

March 10, 1985|SHELLEY BERMAN

Comedian Berman's name was on a U.N.-kept list of entertainers who, by performing in South Africa, have "violated" a cultural boycott of South Africa organized by anti-apartheid groups. When I last appeared in South Africa (prior to blacklisting and its subsequent retroactive application) in theaters and on national television, one of my routines was a "phone call" to my "aunt" back in America. From my end of the conversation the audience knew my aunt was fearful of my being in such a troubled nation. A portion of the monologue went this way:

Well, what's so terrible about South Africa? Yes, blacks, whites, what else?--Yes, yes, strife, unrest, protest, what else?--Yes, yes, riots, fires, arrests, violence.... Excuse me, Auntie, but I forgot which country we're talking about, theirs or ours....

Not the best joke I ever told, but it always drew big laughter and applause from my audiences--integrated audiences in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. While I dare not claim immortality or great significance for the bit, I do suspect it enjoyed a certain resonance: I was talking and people were listening and I was saying my country as well as theirs mistreats its black population. I was saying it to blacks, coloreds, and liberal and conservative whites. And because I am a comedian, I not only got away with it, I was able to be there to say it.

Did I go to South Africa for some altruistic purpose? Of course not. I am a performer and must earn a living.

If I did not need to go there would I still go? Absolutely.

We must all go there. All Americans who are able should visit this afflicted nation with its repugnant practice of apartheid and see for ourselves what is happening there; learn why this horror is so difficult to overcome, see what we can do to help. Those unable to go must seek other ways to learn exactly what is going on in South Africa--learn that nothing like it ever took place in America, including slavery.

I regret that I lack the wisdom at this time to offer a better way to fight apartheid other than to arm ourselves with knowledge. I submit that the present outburst of American protest will result in a misleading token loosening of restrictions. I do not argue that it is wrong to keep the pressure on, but may I ask if less antagonistic approaches must be regarded as unequivocal signs of indifference and acquiescence?

With or without the blessing of those who favor pulling out our investments and blacklisting, I must act in the only way I believe is right. I will hope I am welcomed back into South Africa, since I believe our two nations must keep our channels of communication open, keep our dialogue flowing. I think we must keep American business active there because it is a powerful link to the heart of that nation; a present force to expand and enrich the lives of the blacks it employs, a future force to effect the changes to come.

I have sat with the youth of South Africa and heard their marvelous new ideas. I have seen young men and women weep for their country and ask me as an American not to give up on them. I have addressed press clubs, community clubs, mingled with the liberal and the Afrikaner. What I feel and think I have shared . I did not go on as a statesman, only an entertainer.

I am heartsick to learn of the existence of the blacklist, but it is not for me to cry "foul." And recanting, so easy to do, would seem to me to be an indictment of one's own integrity. No.

We all agree apartheid must end. All that's left is how.

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