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The unforgettable concert that history somehow forgot

In mid-1980s South Africa, Nelson Mandela was still languishing in prison, and the now-ruling African National Congress was a banned movement.

Many people were held in detention, while anti-government activists in the townships engaged in violent confrontations with the security forces. Acts of sabotage were commonplace and thousands of young white men were expected, under pain of imprisonment, to perform military duties on South Africa’s borders.

For the international community, South Africa was a pariah, subject to sanctions and a cultural boycott. In 1980, the U.N. General Assembly carried a resolution asking states to “prevent all cultural, academic, sports and other exchanges with South Africa.” Performers such as Queen, Frank Sinatra, Cher and Shirley Bassey, who agreed to play in the country, were put on a U.N. blacklist.

Inside South Africa, local musicians had to fend off government censorship, as the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) routinely deprived airplay to songs or albums deemed politically or morally problematic. Vinyl records were scratched to make it impossible for disc jockeys to ignore diktats. The police periodically teargassed concerts and some performers had their tires slashed.

“Internal resistance to apartheid was growing, and the state was stepping up its attempts to repress resistance, as evidenced in the declaration of states of emergency in parts of the country. External resistance in the form of sanctions and the cultural and sports boycotts was also impacting on the state’s paranoia,” says associate professor Michael Drewett of South Africa’s Rhodes University. Bookended by internal and external pressure, many South African singers and musicians chose exile or packed in their careers.

This Could Be a Great Place for a Concert

Radio 702, one of the few independent radio stations inside South Africa, decided to launch a telethon fundraiser for Operation Hunger. The charity was set up in 1980 by two doctors, Selma Browde and Nthato Motlana, to tackle countrywide malnutrition. In late 1984, Radio 702 decided to open a new studio, in what was then the homeland of Bophuthatswana (now Gauteng province). The owner Issie Kirsch decided to take a helicopter to visit the site, and he brought record producer, Hilton Rosenthal, along for the ride.

At the time, Rosenthal owned South Africa’s largest independent record company and was responsible for producing hit records that propelled the British-born Jewish singer Johnny Clegg, dubbed “le Zoulou blanc” in France and the group Juluka to international stardom.

As the men made their way back to Johannesburg, the helicopter passed over the enormous Ellis Park Stadium (now Emirates Airline Park), best known to outsiders for international rugby matches including the 1995 Rugby World Cup, depicted in Clint Eastwood’s 2009 film “Invictus.” Looking down, Rosenthal believed more could be done to boost the telethon’s success and the thought came to mind that, “this could be a great place for a concert.”

Kirsch spoke to Ellis Park’s manager Louis Luyt who generously agreed to loan the stadium out for free. Radio 702 would handle advertising for the concert, and the only payment required was for cleaning the stadium.

The organizers had just two months to prepare. Rosenthal insisted that the band lineup would include both black and white musicians. More than 20 acts, including Johnny Clegg and Juluka, agreed to play for free.

Clegg, who died of cancer in 2019, was inspired as a teenage boy by Zulu dance and culture. He later partnered with the musician Sipho Mchunu, and together they created rich compositions that infused traditional Zulu music styles with folk and rock music.

Johnny Clegg and Savuka

Three Years Later: South African singer Johnny Clegg (C) and dancers of South African band Savuka perform on stage on May 11, 1988 at the Zenith concert hall in Paris By Getty Images

Clegg had frequent run-ins with the security police, over concerts featuring mixed audiences. Though as the years went by, his overseas success afforded him a level of protection.

Other invited acts included Steve Kekana, who lost his eyesight as a young boy, but later found he had a talent for singing. Then there was the powerful voice of Margaret Singana, whose musical talents were discovered while she worked as a domestic cleaner; PJ Powers and Hotline, who had amassed a strong following in neighboring countries and “Madonna of the Townships” Brenda Fassie.

Other acts included Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse and Harari; singer-songwriter Pierre de Charmoy; Afro-rock group Via Afrika; the masters of “ethnotronic” rhythms éVoid, as well as Petit Cheval, Ella Mental and Face to Face.

There Were So Many People

In the days leading up to the concert, organizers hoped to attract an audience of 30,000. But on the day, Jan. 12, throngs descended on the stadium.

“The whole city seemed to shut down. There were so many people,” says Craig Else from Petit Cheval. At least 100,000 tickets were sold, and a further 20,000 people turned up, raising concerns of a stampede. Technicians raced to find larger speakers to musically accommodate the growing crowd. But, despite the unforeseen events, “everything fell into place,” says Rosenthal.

Under the southern sun, the audience, composed of every race, decked out in caps, some holding umbrellas and beer cans were treated to an eclectic range of music.

‘There was a strange mix of bands, a seemingly incompatible group of artists. Not a melting pot, more of a salad bowl,” Else recalls. For South Africa, the early 1980s saw a proliferation of new musical talent. There was, “so much self-expression during this era,” says éVoid bandmember Erik Windrich.

As the event got underway, Brenda Fassie and the Big Dudes fired up the crowd with the massive hit “Weekend Special.”

The upbeat track “Jive Soweto” “attracted a surprisingly exceptional response from the multiracial audience,” said Harari frontman Sipho Mabuse. Then P.J. Powers, who 10 years later would grace the same stage for the Rugby World Cup, belted out the Afro-pop hit “Dance Mama.”

Many of the songs, particularly those by Afro-pop group Via Afrika, were notable for their adoption of South African and broader African elements, such as the penny whistle infused sounds of kwela, the jazzy notes of mbaqanga or the upbeat melodies of bubblegum.

For black musicians such as Mabuse, what made this event special was, “given the status quo, neither white people were exposed to the music from the other side of town, the townships, nor were Black people familiar with white music. It made for an exhilarating atmosphere.”

Many, including Rosenthal, remember that it was the appearance of Johnny Clegg and his performance of “Scatterlings of Africa” that made the crowd go “nuts.”

“There was one Juluka fan who had a wooden leg, and he held the leg in the air and people were throwing it up and catching it,” recallewd Rosenthal. “There was a jovial, celebratory atmosphere, and it showed what a non-racial South Africa could be.”

As a young student in the crowd, Lisa Brittan, remembers that it felt “like a moment of coming together. It signaled something that stood apart.”

But for groups, such as éVoid, the event was tinged by sadness; it was the last time they would play in front of such a large audience, before they, like so many others, decided to leave South Africa.

We Will Never See Such an Event Again

Many feared that fights could break out, but as Else remembers, “People checked all their aggression at the door. They just wanted to have a good time.” Despite the large numbers there were hardly any incidents. Drummer Jarrod Aston-Assenheim of Face to Face recalls that even members of the police were, “dancing, high-fiving and smiling.”

In the days after, the concert went unnoticed by the international press, but in an extraordinary mirroring of events, just months later, in July, the press and the world’s attention would be drawn to Africa, as thousands of people would fill concert arenas in the U.S. and the U.K. to support Live Aid’s famine relief efforts in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, South Africa, would plunge into a state of emergency and violence would continue unabated through the decade.

But for over 100,000 people, on a balmy Johannesburg night, the Concert in the Park, punctuated a bleak period in South African history.

“We will never see such an event again,” says Aston-Assenheim, since no event to date has ever showcased such an array of South African musical talent in one place, and incredibly people of all races were able to experience it. A little bit of history was made that day, as it proved that no matter the circumstances, when you play great music, the world cannot help but stop and listen.

Emily Boulter is a writer and blogger based in Switzerland.


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