In 1985, singer-songwriter Paul Simon made a controversial nine-day visit to South Africa—a visit that some felt was in violation of a United Nations cultural boycott, but a visit that dramatically increased worldwide awareness of black South Africa’s rich musical traditions. Seven years later, with the U.N. boycott lifted, Simon returned to South Africa to play a historic concert in Johannesburg on January 11, 1992.
The cultural boycott of South Africa was put in place during the late-60s and early-70s in response to the racist policies of South Africa under apartheid. With the vocal support of South Africa’s banned opposition party, the African National Congress, the United Nations barred South Africa from participating in international sporting events and cultural affairs. Because black South Africans were already barred from such activities under apartheid, it was hoped that an international cultural boycott would selectively punish white South Africans, breeding resentment and undermining support for the ruling National Party. While U.N. restrictions on trade and military support were only selectively respected by some of the most powerful nations of the world, the cultural boycott against South Africa held firm.
Paul Simon entered this picture after being turned on to mbaqanga and mbube—the music of South Africa’s black townships—and conceiving the Graceland album, which would go on to be his most successful and important work as a solo artist. In the face of public criticism of his plans, Simon traveled to Johannesburg in February 1985, for recording sessions with South African artists like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a vocal group largely unknown both to the outside world and to white South Africans, who had little opportunity under apartheid to hear the music of their black countrymen. The result of these sessions was a landmark album that sold millions of copies, won multiple Grammys and earned a place in the United States National Recording Registry in 2006.
It was only appropriate, then, that Paul Simon should be the first major international star to perform in South Africa after the lifting of the U.N. boycott. With the full support of the ANC and its recently freed leader Nelson Mandela, Simon performed before 40,000 cheering fans in Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium on this day in 1992. It was a powerfully symbolic event that also underscored the limits of symbolism in addressing entrenched inequality; as 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.” As a result, the audience for Simon’s historic South African concert was overwhelmingly young and white.