Protesters threaten Simon in S. Africa Pop singer's concert supported by ANC

January 12, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Pop star Paul Simon has been singing about troubled waters for almost 30 years, but never until he hit South Africa for a concert tour did he plunge into seas as stormy as this country's volatile politics.

The American singer began his concert series yesterday under heavy guard and facing threats of demonstrations and violence from left-wing blacks opposed to his decision to come to South Africa.

Almost 1,000 police and security guards were stationed around Ellis Park Stadium in east Johannesburg as the concert, called "Born at the Right Time," got under way. One local radio disc jockey suggested the name should be changed to "Came At the Wrong Time" because of all the trouble it encountered.

Protesters with anti-Simon placards began showing up three hours before the 5 p.m. concert, which started with three hours of warm-up acts by well-known South African performers.

Mr. Simon returned to South Africa, where he recorded his hit album "Graceland" in 1986, saying he wanted to repay the South African artists who worked with him on that recording.

rTC The concert featured South African musicians who traveled around the world with Mr. Simon on his successful Graceland tour but never performed publicly with the singer in their own country.

The tour was supported by the African National Congress, whose leader, Nelson Mandela, threw a party for Mr. Simon Friday night, but it came under fire from a handful of radical left organizations that said international stars should continue to boycott South Africa.

"We wish to make it clear we are not opposed to Mr. Simon in person. Our opposition to his tour is based on our principled position to have South Africa accepted in the international community only once the oppressed exercise the ballot for political power," said Bennie Alexander, a spokesman for the Pan Africanist Congress, a political rival of Mr. Mandela's ANC.

But the PAC said it didn't want to see violence at the Simon concert because the "oppressed" would be the victims.

The threat of violence came from a fringe group calling itself the Azanian Youth Organization (AZAYO), which began to criticize the Simon tour publicly only days before the rock 'n' roll star arrived in the country last Tuesday.

Two Soviet-made hand grenades exploded Tuesday night at the downtown offices of a company handling local promotion of the tour, but no one was injured and only minor damage was done to the building.

AZAYO leaders said the group would use violence if necessary to stop the tour. After meeting for hours with Mr. Simon and his managers over a two-day period, the activists said they still expected violence at the stadium. They said their negotiations with the singer had reached a deadlock.

Police said they took the threat of violence seriously and were prepared to do whatever necessary to prevent it. Fans were checked for weapons as they entered the stadium, which was heavily patrolled by officers on foot, in cars, in tanks and on horseback. Police said they had no intention of letting a small fringe group ruin the concert for tens of thousands.

"Leaders of groups, especially AZAYO, must realize that their remarks about violence are extremely irresponsible and provocative," said Police Capt. Eugene Opperman.

Despite the political storm, Mr. Simon has been warmly welcomed by thousands of South African fans, and promoters expected 60,000 to attend the first concert.

Most South Africans are hungry for performers of his caliber to start coming to the country again after years of cultural isolation, imposed by international organizations to protest the apartheid system of racial discrimination and repression.

The boycott was pressed by groups such as Mr. Mandela's ANC and supported by the South African Musicians Alliance until last year, when many sanctions against South Africa started falling away because of political reforms.

In response to the reforms initiated by the white-minority government, the ANC said it supported the lifting of certain sanctions, including sanctions against sports and cultural exchanges.

But the ANC, the most popular and influential black group in the country, has been locked in a struggle for power with other black organizations ever since it was unbanned by the government nearly two years ago.

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