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Paul Simon plays in South Africa

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He came in peace. The first major U.S. artist to perform in South Africa since the United Nations lifted its cultural boycott last month, Paul Simon checked into Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium as a musical Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, his mission being to symbolize an end to the nation’s years of violence. It didn’t work out that way. 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.

Welcome to South Africa, Paul, where politics are still crazy after all these years.

For Simon, a longtime friend of South Africa’s oppressed, the journey was intensely personal. The tour was dedicated to the memory of his friend, Headman Tshabalala, cofounder and leading bass singer of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the group featured on Simon’s Grammy-winning 1986 Graceland album. Last month, Tshabalala was shot dead after an argument with a white security guard. Devastated by the killing, Simon expressed surprise that the man arrested was out on little more than $300 bail.

The pilgrimage to honor his dead friend turned ugly as soon as Simon touched down. His presence was perceived as a slap by those who want South Africa boycotted until there is black majority rule. 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.

After the grenade attacks, however, no further violence materialized. Simon’s debut went off without incident, although steep ticket prices ($15-$30) and fear of bloodshed kept a third of the expected crowd away. But the more than 40,000 mostly white fans who did show were treated to rousing performances by Simon and his guests, Miriam Makeba and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, whom many were seeing for the first time.

Caught in murky, factional politics, Simon had less success with leftist leaders — some of whom suggested he leave the country. After a two-hour, preconcert meeting with the militant Azanian People’s Organization (AZAPO), Simon emerged visibly pale, tired and less than enchanted.

”I know conditions aren’t perfect,” he conceded. ”There is still struggle to come. There is still hardship.”

And until Jan. 25, when the tour ends, there will be Paul Simon, in the middle of it all.

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