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Stars Play Supporting Roles

Activism As Artists for a New South Africa passes the 10-year mark, its agenda is full of projects and its celebrity volunteers are as committed as ever.

May 17, 1999|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Their currency is star power--and Artists for a New South Africa knows it.

There's Danny Glover and Angela Bassett in the squatter camps, showing voters how to mark a ballot in South Africa's free elections. There's Denzel Washington, meeting with 400 actors and filmmakers in Johannesburg. There's Alfre Woodard, leading an acting workshop for teenagers in Soweto.

With a star-studded list of more than 2,000 donors, the organization has returned again and again to South Africa, with a total of 75 supporters. On one trip, Artists for a New South Africa delegates wondered, why are those old men and women hauling 5-gallon buckets of water from 5 miles away? The question turned into a new project--a windmill irrigation system for the village--and the celebrities stepped in to coax funds for the cause. Since 1995, through major fund-raising campaigns, Artists for a New South Africa has raised more than $2.8 million for scholarships, farming cooperatives and other programs.

"Not only do we want to raise money," Woodard says of the Culver City-based nonprofit group, "but we just need money to get our phones going. Daily, we get calls from the [South African] president's office, from people in government, from people in squatter camps. They ring us because they assume we're going to be there because we've been there."

This year, Artists for a New South Africa turns 10, and its project list is longer than ever--advisors to MTV Road Rules, which is filming two episodes in South Africa; partners with the Sundance Institute to develop filmmaking sessions in the country; pairing with Quincy Jones and Habitat for Humanity to build houses in townships and squatter camps.

*

On May 24, Artists for a New South Africa will host a 10th-anniversary benefit concert, "Jabulani! Freedom Rising" (jabulani is Zulu for "we rejoice"). The concert will feature performances by Joan Baez, Stevie Wonder and BeBe Winans at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles.

The scheduled guest of honor and speaker is retired Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, who headed South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the panel that reviewed crimes during the apartheid era. Tutu now teaches at Atlanta's Emory University.

Part of the proceeds will benefit the Desmond Tutu Peace Trust, which is based in Cape Town. The archbishop and his wife, Leah Tutu, founded the trust in October 1998 to promote the search for global peace and leadership. The trust's projects will include a training program for emerging leaders in sub-Saharan Africa and a peace center that will preserve and present Africa's histories, stories, cultures and spirituality.

After Tutu agreed to attend, Artists for a New South Africa--and its staff of two--had three months to put together the benefit concert, one of its biggest events ever, says executive director Sharon Gelman. It's not hard, she says, to grab celebrities to stuff envelopes and put up posters when they have such a passion for the cause.

The group was founded by activists who had longtime interests in South Africa. Glover, for instance, had been an anti-apartheid activist since college, and Woodard had been involved in the movement for years. In the beginning, Artists for a New South Africa was formed in support of the international economic sanctions and cultural boycott of South Africa's apartheid regime.

"[South Africa] needed people to raise a ruckus on its behalf," Gelman said.

Since then, the group has also looked for ways to promote South Africa locally. Its volunteers, for instance, have read children's books on South Africa to kids in Compton; one story was about a grandmother going with her granddaughter to vote for the first time. In the next week, Artists for a New South Africa will distribute more than 200 free tickets for the benefit concert to young people in South-Central Los Angeles.

Still, the focus remains in South Africa.

Artists for a New South Africa has shipped 60 tons of books and medical supplies to South Africa. It provides funding for groups, including the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg, which trains up to 700 journalists a year from all over Africa.

In a 10th-anniversary greeting by video, Mandela sent along his thanks for the group's work.

"By offering artists a vehicle to use their skills and resources, and support of the course of freedom in South Africa, you made our cause your cause," he said.

* Tickets for the benefit concert are available through Ticketmaster, (213) 480-3232; for reception information, call (310) 559-9334.

* Renee Tawa can be reached by e-mail at renee.tawa@latimes.com.

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