Elton’s South Africa tour jogs memories of Sun City


Johannesburg : As ageing British pop star Elton John prepares for the start of what has been billed as his first tour of South Africa on the weekend, locals are recalling his real first in front of South African audiences at the height of apartheid 25 years ago.

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If John can claim today he never played in South Africa it’s because Sun City, where he played 25 years ago, was back then part of Bophuthatswana – one of the nominally independent, overcrowded “homelands” where the apartheid state dumped millions of blacks.

John’s tour kicks off in Cape Town Sunday before moving to the port city of Durban on the 16th and winding up in Johannesburg on the 18th.

“Don’t miss the chance to see Elton John and his band, live in South Africa,” a press release issued by the concert promoter Big Concerts urged, presenting the tour as a first.

But thousands of South Africans have already hopped and bopped to Sir Elton’s Crocodile Rock, packing out a series of his concerts at the infamous Sun City casino complex northwest of Johannesburg in October 1983.

John’s appearance at Sun City came at a time of growing mass resistance to apartheid in South Africa following the establishment of the United Democratic Movement (UDM), a non-racial coalition of civic, church, student, worker and other groups.

While the UDM and the African National Congress were trying to topple the racist system Sun City’s brazen boss Sol Kerzner was trying the break the cultural boycott of South Africa by attracting top acts to his hilltop resort.

Yet to play at Sun City, dubbed Sin City by whites who travelled there to gamble and ogle topless dancers (pleasures denied them in puritanical South Africa), was to recognize the puppet “homelands” in a way the international community never did.

“Bop was a joke,” says art critic Diane de Beer, who attended several concerts at Sun City during the 1980s. “It was right in the middle of South Africa. If anyone looked at a map they would have known.”

Musicians like Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart, Elton John and Queen who chose to play along with the Bop farce did so, according to de Beer and fellow critic Peter Feldman, because they were paid top dollar to perform there.

“They used to say ‘We’re doing it for our fans, we’re not politicians’ but the truth is they didn’t care. They were being paid millions to perform there,” says Feldman, who interviewed Elton John and Queen, among others, for Johannesburg’s Star newspaper.

For South African pop fans the arrival of big international acts was like manna from heaven.

“When Sol Kerzner starting bringing in those top guys it was huge. People here were so hungry (for contact with the outside world),” de Beer recalls.

Sinatra was the first big performer to appear in Sun City’s Superbowl in 1981. Elton John’s mind was made up after he was flown out to the resort in July 1983 to surprise his buddy Rod Stewart onstage.

“He was blown away by the place. He had a really good time,” according to Hazel Feldman, Sun City’s former entertainment director.

While Feldman cannot remember exactly how many shows he performed that October – between eight and 10 – she’s adamant the tickets – more than 50,000 in total – sold out.

Throughout the 1980s headline acts, including British rock group Queen and Canadian-born crooner Paul Anka, flocked to Sun City.

Their complicity, unwitting or otherwise, in the apartheid system so outraged one group of artists calling themselves Artists United Against Apartheid they recorded the hit single Sun City in 1985, vowing never to play there.

Elton John did return to Sun City in 1993, performing an outdoor concert remembered by critics for his irritation at being swarmed by insects and an abrupt interruption of the show.

“It’s very easy for people to look back now and criticize (Sun City performers),” says Feldman. “It was a time and place in South Africa.”

On his last visit to South Africa in 2005 the 60-year-old singer devoted himself to charitable activities, opening a centre for orphaned and abused children in a Johannesburg squatter camp and visiting other projects funded by his AIDS foundation.