Paul Simon tour heralds end to S. Africa's isolation

January 08, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- American pop singer Paul Simon landed in South Africa yesterday for a concert tour that ends this country's cultural isolation from the rest of the world.

Dressed in black and wearing dark glasses, the singer arrived at Johannesburg's Jan Smuts International Airport to begin a two-week tour that is expected to draw huge crowds.

When the tour begins Saturday, Mr. Simon will become the first major artist to perform in South Africa since the government began political reforms two years ago aimed at ending the apartheid system of racial discrimination.

His tour coincides with a visit by actress Whoopi Goldberg, who is here to film a movie version of the Broadway hit "Sarafina," based on the lives of schoolchildren in the black township of Soweto.

The presence of the two stars in a country that was previously boycotted by major performers marks the beginning of a new era for South Africa.

Dozens of nations began lifting trade and sports sanctions in the past year, but for the average South African this is the first real manifestation of the shift in attitudes toward their country.

Most black political groups, including the influential African National Congress, have called for an end to the cultural sanctions in response to the government's reforms, although many continue to support trade sanctions until the government takes additional steps toward giving blacks full citizenship rights.

ANC President Nelson Mandela said that his organization decided last year that cultural sanctions should end and that the decision was backed by the United Nations and the British Commonwealth.

"We see no reason why artists should not visit this country in light of these developments," he told CNN in a televised interview.

But a few small left-wing groups have threatened to disrupt the Simon trip, saying it is too soon to end the boycott because apartheid is not dead.

"If the show goes ahead, we are definitely going to mount efforts to boycott," said Thami Mcerwa, a youth leader of the radical Azanian People's Organization. "If violence becomes a necessity, it will obviously take place."

Mr. Simon said he was disturbed by the threats but determined to go ahead with his tour. The concert series has been planned for more than two months but did not come under criticism from the left-wing groups until last week.

"I was under the impression everything was understood and agreed upon and fine," the singer said. "I was surprised that at the eleventh hour this should arise."

The tour was supported by the South African Musicians Alliance, one of the main groups that promoted the boycott until last year.

The group says Mr. Simon and his entourage had complied with a program designed to redress racial imbalances in the cultural world. More than 2,000 tickets to the concerts have been donated to underprivileged children, and musicians touring with Mr. Simon will conduct workshops in black townships.

Already famous in the United States for almost three decades, Mr. Simon gained millions of new fans in South Africa after the release of his "Graceland" album, which featured several black South African musical groups.

While he did not perform in the country, he was criticized by some people for recording the album in South Africa at a time when the United Nations and black political organizations had called for a total boycott of the country.

Despite the controversy, "Graceland" introduced millions of music fans to the sounds of urban, black South African music.

The album sold more than 6 million copies, won a Grammy award for record of the year in 1988 and introduced an international audience to the Zulu singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

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