Writing Contest: Semifinalist
Song: "Silver and Gold" (U2)
"Am I buggin' ya'? I don't mean to bug ya'," Bono, lead singer of the Irish rock band,
U2, inquired of his audience one night in Tempe, Arizona, on U2's acclaimed Joshua Tree Tour.
Bono and his bandmates, The Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen, Jr., were in the middle of
playing a song that had been written only about two months earlier. No stranger to political
ramblings from their favorite rock star, the audience that night was not surprised when Bono
took time out of one of U2's most politically fueled songs to talk about why the song had been
written. Usually, these political lectures made the show suffer, but not that night. Instead, Bono
took a more urgent tone as he proclaimed the band's support for economic sanctions against
South Africa. These economic sanctions were one of the main themes of the song being played
in Tempe that night: "Silver and Gold."
U2 had been approached about two months before by Little Steven to contribute to a
compilation entitled Artists against Apartheid. The name of the compilation states it
plainly-this was an album saturated with over-the-top rhythms aimed at showing the world's
population how horrible apartheid was and then doing something about it. Their
"something"-and eventually most of the western world's "something"-was economic
sanctions. U2 were not afraid to write a controversial political anthem; after all, political
anthems were what had gotten them this far. So unafraid, in fact, that they actually contributed
two songs to the album, "Sun City" and "Silver and Gold." While "Sun City" was a successful
song, it did not match the anger and urgency that "Silver and Gold" possessed, and U2 knew that
when you were trying to change the political and economic systems of an entire country, anger
and urgency were what you needed.
During that performance of "Silver and Gold" in Tempe, Bono complained of losing faith
in the peacemakers of the West "while they argue, and while they fail to support...economic
sanctions against South Africa." But would economic sanctions really help? Or were U2 and
other artists arguing for something that they did not know much about?
In the eyes of the world, the government of South Africa's exploitation of their black and
"coloured" populations was horrendous. South Africa had passed laws that made it almost
impossible for members of nonwhite races to travel, work for fair wages, or even assemble. To
U2, there was only one thing that could be done: the western countries needed to stop South
Africa's successful economy. With no money, South Africa would be sure to change its system
of government. Or as "Silver and Gold" said it, "hit where it hurts, for silver and gold." But
how would they go about stopping an economy? Sanctions. More specifically, trade sanctions.
World trade is a sticky subject. While today Bono has studied world trade at Harvard, in
the late 1980s he had less of an idea of what he was talking about. Anyone can understand
simple aspects of trade though, and stopping South Africa-or any country-from being able to
export their goods to the world would eventually lead to dramatically less money pouring into
their economies. And because economies are the lifeblood of any country, suddenly that country
would be running on low. In the case of South Africa, the United Nations decided to impose
Although sanctions were not the only reason for the end of apartheid, they definitely
deserve some credit. By the end of the system, South Africa's economy had slowed down.
Because sanctions were not imposed by South Africa's largest trading partners (other southern
African countries), the western sanctions were not as effective as they could have been had they
gained a broader base of implementation.
In the United States today, sanctions are controversial: while some view them as an
alternative to war, others view them as largely ineffective in changing government policies.
According to "US Economic Sanctions: Their Impact on Trade, Jobs, and Wages," a paper
written for the Institute of International Economics, only about one in five impositions of
economic sanctions by the United States (with or without its partners, the UN, or any other
organization), has been effective. Whether effective in ending apartheid or not, the sanctions
imposed on South Africa were an important step in the international fight for civil rights and
should always be viewed as a success.
Since their start, U2 have achieved fame by fighting for civil rights, AIDS victims,
sanctions, and other controversial issues. "Silver and Gold" was written to bring attention to and
change a situation that was inevitably tied to politics and economics. For Bono and the rest of
the band, sanctions against South Africa meant much more than slowing down the trade of South
Africa-it meant freeing the people of that country from exploitation and injustices.
1. Hufbauer, Gary Clyde, et al. US Economic Sanctions: Their Impact on Trade, Jobs, and
Wages. Institute for International Economics, 1997.
2. Stokes, Niall. Into the Heart: The Stories Behind Every U2 Song. Thunder's Mouth
3. Bono/Adam Clayton/The Edge/Larry Mullen Jr. "Silver and Gold." Interscope/Island