ON January 11 1992, Paul Simon kicked off his South Africa tour. He’d visited the country before, back in 1985 in defiance of the UN-sponsored cultural boycott against apartheid. On 2 December 1968, The UN General Assembly requested all States and organisations “to suspend cultural, educational, sporting and other exchanges with the racist regime and with organisations or institutions in South Africa which practice apartheid”. Sportsmen and music acts were encouraged not to play in South Africa.
The ANC and Artists Against Apartheid were outraged. Why hadn’t Simon consulted them before arriving?
Said Simon: “You went to South Africa but you didn’t ask us. You need to ask the ANC. So that’s the kind of government you’re going to be? Check our lyrics? F*** the artists like all kinds of governments have done in the past?”
Simon’s foresight introduced much of the world to the music of black South Africa. That first trip led to his groundbreaking Graceland album, featuring South African musicians Hugh Masekela, Simon and Miriam Makeba and the Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Joe Berlinger followed Simon on his trip. In his documentary Under African Skies, we hear Dali Tambo, founder of Artists Against Apartheid and son of the late African National Congress (ANC) president Oliver Tambo. He says: “At that moment in time, it was not helpful. We were fighting for our land, for our identity. We had a job to do, and it was a serious job. And we saw Paul Simon coming as a threat because it was not sanctioned by the liberation movement.”
Simon found it absurd that artists should be viewed in the light and shadows cast by politicians. Art, said Simon, would endure.
In 1987, Simon performed his Under African Skies Concert in Harare:
When Simon returned in 1992, that boycott has been lifted. This time the ANC backed him.
Of the show in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium, The New York Times noted, “Most black South Africans could not afford to pay up to $30 for a ticket, or, lacking cars, to travel to Johannesburg from the outlying black townships.”
Entertainment Weekly surveyed the scene:
While Simon opened his two-week South Africa tour with such gentle songs as ”The Obvious Child,” ”Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and ”The Sounds of Silence,” armored police vehicles, bomb-sniffing canines, and even a surveillance helicopter patrolled the stadium. Outside, clusters of angry black protesters, representing leftist fringe groups that ferociously oppose the lifting of international sanctions against South Africa, were handing out leaflets, waving anti-Simon signs, and threatening to disrupt his concert with violence.
Not everyone could make it. One month earlier, Ladysmith Black Mambazo co-founder Headman Tshabalala had been shot dead by a white security guard. The guard had been arrested. He’d been released on $300 bail.
The day he arrived, two hand grenades exploded outside the offices of a Johannesburg company that helped arrange the tour. Complaints were also aimed at Whoopi Goldberg and the production of Sarafina!, which she is filming in South Africa.
The Baltimore Sun reviewed the show:
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.
Violence was never far away.
About a half-dozen tanks painted in camouflage colors sat near the front of the stadium.