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Mini-Feature: The Day South Africa United in Music

The 1985 Concert in the Park – Ellis Park Johannesburg

10th January 2021:

Next week marks the 36th anniversary of a landmark event in South African musical history, the concert held to benefit Operation Hunger at Ellis Park (Johannesburg) in 1985. What made it so important is that it was the first time that the stringent apartheid laws were ignored and 125,000 multi-racial fans took the chance to celebrate our country’s diverse musical talent in a 12-hour festival that went off without a hitch, no violence (except for the vocalist of USA band Feather Control being hit on the head by a bottle – a statement against non-local music methinks), and a wake-up call that the youth had had quite enough of being told what to think, what to believe and what music to listen to.

PJ Powers in full voice with her band Hotline

Today I am flaunting my normal 3-track rule and will be sharing four songs instead, mainly due to the number of amazing bands that took part in the event, but also that some of those performances were the last time we saw certain of these bands play live. It is a fascinating but lengthy story and well worth the read, so four songs will break up the story perfectly.

Before going any further I would like to credit the excellent article – A Peaceful Riot from DJ Okapi, originally published on the Mahala website in 2010 that I based my research around. His on-hand account is a mine of information.

Margaret Singana wowing the crowd from her wheelchair

The story of the concert began when Hilton Rosenthal, the well-known music producer for CBS at the time and Radio 702’s head, Issy Kirsch were returning by helicopter to Johannesburg after a trip to Bophuthatswana. Rosenthal, who had been inspired by a fundraising telethon he had heard on 702, decided that he also wanted to do something to help the poorest of the poor, but on a scale never before seen in South Africa.

As the chopper flew over the Ellis Park stadium Rosenthal mentioned to Kirsch that it would make the perfect venue for his idea of a huge music concert fundraiser. It just so happened that Kirch was a personal friend of Louis Luyt, business tycoon, politician, ex-National Rugby Administrator and head of the Rugby Union. As such he was head-honcho at the hallowed grounds of Ellis Park. Luyt was known for his sometimes contentious views by his far-right peers of the time, something that Kirsch knew he could play on. Within days Louis Luyt happily agreed to donate Ellis Park free of charge to the event.

Let’s listen to some music before I get too embroiled in this remarkable story. We are fortunate that the concert was filmed and we have quite a few clips to choose from. I’ve decided to start with the brilliant, if sometimes scandalous, Brenda Fassie, appearing here with her band The Big Dudes. Sadly ‘MaBrr’ is no longer with us, but she lives on as a legend of anti-apartheid music. She performed her classic song, Weekend Special, as the late afternoon was drawing in, setting the tone for the evening’s line-up.

I’m not sure if Hilton Rosenthal had expected such a speedy response to his comment about Ellis Park making the perfect venue for his idea, but he certainly didn’t waste any time once the OK had been given. Within days he had managed to get commitments from 22 of South Africa’s top music acts. Whether he purposefully included artists from all races and genres to make a strong statement against the politics of the day isn’t known, but it certainly piqued the interest, hopes, and (of course) the fears of the public. Everyone from the musicians, engineers, technicians, set-builders, lighting designers right down to the cleaning staff agreed to offer their services for free, all in the name of Operation Hunger.

Rosenthal hoped for a possible 30,000 ticket sales and what happened was unprecedented at a local musical event. A staggering 100,000 tickets had been sold by the day of the concert, but this didn’t stop an additional 25,000 fans from flooding the venue. The turnstiles were eventually lifted from their foundations by the push of the crowd and the fans poured in without incident.

The first band of the day to take the stage was one that I featured earlier on this month, Petit Cheval. This was the last live performance that they gave before splitting up due to internal disagreements. It is quite sad that they were scheduled first on the agenda as the stadium looked more like the setting for a Sunday Picnic at that hour instead of the huge farewell audience they deserved.

Jon Selby of Petit Cheval

In honour of the exiled Hugh Masekela, actress/singer Mara Louw gave a powerful rendition of his Motla Le Pula, which set the multi-racial tone of the day perfectly. Concert goers were introduced to bands from the other side of their reality performing together for the first time. Top white acts Ella Mental and Via Afrika played along with the disco-funk inspired Umoja while Margaret Singana brought the house down from the confines of her wheelchair. Everyone, regardless of race, age or gender was swept up in the promise of a possible future together.

The concert reached an early climax when South Africa’s controversial but much-loved band Jaluka took the stage. As the only mixed-race band of the time, they resonated with every member of the audience on that day. MC and DJ Alex Jay remembers “Johnny Clegg showed us that day why he was world class, he was just a man on his volcano. He was spectacular,”  It was also one of their last performances as a band as Sipho Mchunu left to return to rural Kwa-Zulu Natal and soon after Johnny Clegg formed the follow-up band, Savuka.

Any acts that followed them that night were bound to be a bit of a letdown, but some of the choices were admittedly questionable. Before we examine that statement it is time for more music. Not Johnny Clegg’s Jaluka (that happens later), but another of my favourite bands of the time Ella Mental featuring the remarkable Heather Mac. Here’s See Yourself – (Clowns).

As mentioned, some of the line-up choices were a bit dodgy and to follow a band with Jaluka’s prestige with the shlock-pop sound of Working Girls and middle-of-the-road crooner, Pierre de Charmoy was close to sacrilegious and the crowd started to dwindle. By the time local Duran Duran wannabes Face to Face hit the stage the audience had halved.

Steve Louw’s outfit, ‘All Night Radio’ lifted the tempo somewhat, but the organisers had used up all of their major drawcards, which was sad. Had they not put both Sipho Hotstix Mabuse and Hotline, fronted by PJ Powers (whose fans spanned the colour spectrum) on quite so early they could have had one of the best musical finales that this country had ever seen. But it wasn’t meant to be.

Rene Veldsman of Via Afrika

One of the bands who weren’t able to play due to prior commitments was Bright Blue, the Cape Town outfit who had written the hit anti-apartheid anthem, Weeping. Lead singer and songwriter, Rob Levitan, wrote a song for the occasion. Hungry Child was performed by Heather Mac, Johnny Clegg, Ronnie Joyce and Steve Kekana, and the song was released on the album of the concert and as a single. I would have liked to feature it but there is no live clip available.

The band that closed South Africa’s biggest music event was eVoid, who got the remaining crowds on their feet with their punk inspired anthem Junk Jive, It is available on YouTube but instead I’ve decided to share their amazing performance of the smash hit Shadows as the third track for today.

To close today’s feature I want to share some of the comments made about the concert. I think this is important to give an even deeper idea to the context in which this remarkable event happened. Even more significant than the amount raised was the integration of the audience, who danced and celebrated together as never before. That being said, the concert raised R450,000 for Operation Hunger, a remarkable amount for the day and one that stood out as an example of what musicians could achieve when working together against social issues.

Alex Jay recalled “Integrated audiences were a no-no. They were still legislated no. Here we came along and we just flaunted the whole thing. We didn’t know how it was going to work. It was down to the audience. When I stood on that stage, and looked out on that black, white, brown mix of South Africans, man, they were all on the same page. The artists were up for it, the venue was up for it, but the crowd made the show. Real South Africans. It was their day.”

Producer Malcolm Watson remembers “I think the whole of South Africa at that time feared the potential of violence. The whole of Ellis Park was absolutely jam-packed, with white and black. And everybody grooved. There wasn’t one incident. It was brilliant, for 12 magical hours, there was no apartheid”

eVoid finishing the show

Looking back on the concert Hilton Blumenthal, the brains behind the idea, stated “The mood among the concert-goers was absolutely peaceful. The head of the police force came to me that evening, and said, ‘it’s amazing. When we have a rugby match here with 20 000 people, we have hundreds and hundreds of arrests. Today we’ve only had around 30 incidents and most of them for people who were drunk and just causing a bit of problem. There’s been very little violence, and we’re actually totally amazed.’”

Much of the political statement label that the concert received happened later, and thank goodness for that. One of the reasons that the concert succeeded is that it was never publicized as a political concert and had no political statement attached to it. If it had have been, the possibility of it being allowed would have been squashed immediately.

I leave it to Hilton Rosenthal to sum up that once-off success of 1985’s Concert in the Park. “Other promoters tried to repeat the success of the concert; none with the same results. It’s always very difficult to emulate a magic moment in time,” he said. “The Concert in the Park in 1985 was just one of those moments. Cosmically, the planets must have been aligned. It was the right time in the country, and we just got very lucky. There was just no way that anyone could be able to emulate that again.”

My final choice of musical highlight from the concert has to go to the late, great, and sorely missed Johnny Clegg and his band Jaluka and Scatterings of Africa, complete with a mind-blowing drum solo ending from Derek de Beer.

I hope you enjoyed this somewhat detailed account of one of South Africa’s important musical moments. I know that there are those among you who sang along to each of today’s songs. Local is Lekker! Catch you soon.

The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do do more than just share a song.

The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.

Words © Andrew Knapp 2021

Published by Loving the Music

I am a music-lover who has been fortunate enough to live through six-decades of ever-changing musical styles and genres. Loving the Music is my eclectic collection of regular music-related mini-features and whatever else tickles my musical fancy. You can also find me on the Loving the Music Facebook group and page. Happy listening - Andrew Knapp

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