Paul Simon rocks South Africa out of a decade of cultural isolation

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

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Rock and roll star Paul Simon ended South Africa's isolation from the popular music world yesterday with a rollicking concert that brought the music of his hit "Graceland" album back to its roots.

The U.S. singer thrilled an audience of more than 30,000 fans who danced and swayed and cheered through a three-hour performance. Most of them had never seen him in live concert because of a 10-year-old international ban that prevented foreign artists from performing in South Africa.

"We're starved for international contact," said Betty O'Neill, who said she had been a Simon fan since he sang with Art Garfunkel in the 1960s. "We're here because we're Paul Simon fans and because this is an event for South Africa. There's been nobody of repute here for years."

A small group of black activists, as many as 100 at one point, marched outside the entrance of Ellis Park Stadium in east Johannesburg with signs that said the singer had come at the wrong time with his "Born at the Right Time" tour.

The hand-lettered placards read: "Simon Go Home," "Yankee Go Home," "Don't Delay Our Freedom," and "Liberation First, Entertainment After."

Members of a radical black group known as the Azanian Youth Organization had threatened to disrupt the concert with violence, saying that the American pop star was wrong to come to South Africa before the country's political problems were solved.

"Artists should come after we have a democratic government," said Kgomotse Modiselle, a 20-year-old high school student who described himself as a spokesman for the left-wing youth group.

"Right now is not the right time for sanctions to be lifted."

He said that only whites were attending the concert because blacks were opposed to Mr. Simon's presence in South Africa. "The stadium is filled with white people," he proclaimed, as several white couples passed by on their way to the stadium.

Most either ignored or glared at the band of about 30 protesters who marched and chanted out front as the concert began.

"I don't pay any attention to them. It's just a few people trying to express their opinion. A very small minority," said Craig Woodward, a young white South African standing outside the stadium .

Almost 1,000 police and security guards were deployed around the stadium because of the threat of violence, but none materialized. Mounted policemen patrolled the periphery of the stadium, while officers on foot stood at the entrances, watching the crowd as stadium security personnel conducted body searches of everyone who passed through the gates.

About a half-dozen tanks painted in camouflage colors sat near the front of the stadium.

Police officials had said that they took the threat of violence seriously and warned that they would not allow a handful of protesters to disrupt the concert.

The threat apparently frightened off thousands of fans, however, since promoters had expected 60,000 fans for the first of five Simon concerts to be performed in South Africa.

Mr. Simon had said that even with the anticipated attendance, the tour would lose up to $200,000 in South Africa because the gate receipts would not cover the cost of his expensive, high-tech show, which featured 17 musicians from the United States, South America, South Africa and West Africa.

The tour was Mr. Simon's first visit to South Africa since he came here in 1986 to record his award-winning "Graceland" album, which featured South African musicians and introduced the Zulu vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to an international audience.

Despite criticism from several left-wing groups, the tour was welcomed by leaders of the African National Congress, South Africa's most important black political group, and was supported by the South African Musicians Alliance.

ANC leader Nelson Mandela threw a party for the rock and roll singer Friday night and asked black South Africans to support the concerts. But only a few hundred blacks could be seen in the audience for the first concert, which was largely a white affair.

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