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A Struggle for Political Asylum - and Home

April 30, 1986

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ The musician’s voice softens and his eyes lose their focus as he talks about the family he left in South Africa six years ago.

Dingane Lelokoane’s daughters are now 7 and 9, and he wonders what they look like. He also worries about his mother.

He’d like to go home, but he and four other members of an African dance troupe are fighting deportation from the United States and are seeking political asylum.

They believe the harsh words they’ve spoken against apartheid during U.S. appearances make it impractical, if not impossible, to return to South Africa, where Lelokoane’s mother has served time in detention.

″South Africa is my home,″ Lelokoane said. ″It’s my beginning and it’s my ending. And I’m intending to see it sometime.

″I don’t know if they receive my mail because I get no response. I’d love to see my family. On the other hand, I have to make a decision I can live with.″

The story of the Uzulu Dance Theatre began with dreams in Soweto, a black town near Johannesburg where Lelokoane was raised amid the nightmare of apartheid.

Lelokoane was one of the lucky ones in 1980 when he auditioned for a spot in the U.S. tour company of ″Ipi Tombi,″ a show about South African blacks leaving their villages for cities. When the musical played on Broadway in 1977, it drew protests from civil rights activists who said it depicted an idyllic view of South African life. The show closed after 39 performances.

In Las Vegas, however, the reception was warm and the South Africans won an award for best musical production.

But in September 1980, 23 members of the cast refused to perform the final show of a six-week run in Houston because they said the producer failed to provide return airline tickets to Johannesburg as stipulated in their contracts.

Most eventually went home. Lelokoane and four others stayed.

″For us, it was a dream to come to America, and we wanted to stay,″ he said.

With no props, no instruments and little money, they formed the Uzulu Dance Theatre and continue to stage shows of traditional songs and dances accompanied by African instruments.

They moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1982 where they also ran into American racism.

In June 1984, a car belonging to the Uzulu members, who shared a house in Oakland, was firebombed. They also found the words, ″Nigger″ and ″KKK,″ painted on their car and received harassing phone calls.

Last year, the group tried to regain legal immigration status by entering Canada and then coming back into the United States under new entertainers visas. Canada refused to grant visas, however, and the move led the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to start deportation proceedings.

The five members of Uzulu facing deportation - two other members are in the country legally - announced on April 8 they were seeking political asylum. A hearing is set for June 5, 1987.

Lelokoane said statements the group made on American soil could lead to detention, and possibly death, if they are sent home.

″I know they’ll visit me. They’ll take me. You know, there is that law that they can hold me for 18 months without a trial,″ he said.

″For a South African to tell Americans to divest in South Africa, that’s treason in South Africa. You can be put to death for saying that,″ he said. ″In America, you have the freedom of speech we don’t have in South Africa. There, I wouldn’t last a week.

″I’m not a politician. I’m a musician.″

South African officials say the group has no reason to fear reprisals, and there are few precedents for asylum applications by black South Africans.

Exiled South African poet Dennis Brutus was granted political asylum in Chicago in September 1983. Brutus, an outspoken critic of white minority rule in South Africa, argued his life would be in danger from South African agents if he were deported to his native Zimbabwe.

Robert Bruce, a spokesman for the State Department’s African Bureau, said it’s very difficult to establish political asylum because treatment of blacks in South Africa was a ″mixed bag″ with some activists facing severe punishment while others seem to be able to go on about their business with impunity.

Bruce also noted the South African courts are ″relatively independent″ in their actions.

However, Nick Rizza, who evaluates asylum claims for Amnesty International, said he believes it is specifically prohibited under South Africa’s Internal Security Act to make the types of statements the Uzulu members have made.

Neither Rizza nor Bruce has reviewed the Uzulu case and neither was able to comment specifically on its merits.

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