By J.D. Podolsky
January 27, 1992 12:00 PM

ARRIVING IN SOUTH AFRICA ON JAN. 7 to play five concerts, Paul Simon was set to become the first major international performer to appear in that country since the lifting of the U.N.’s 11-year cultural boycott last December. He had dreamed of such concerts since 1980, when his Grammy-winning Graceland album, rich in African rhythms and backed largely by black South African musicians, first appeared, and he had come with the endorsement of both the Pretoria government and Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress, as well as the latter’s chief rival, the Inkatha Freedom Party. If all went well, the concerts would provide a triumphant finish to a tour that had taken Simon to 27 countries in 13 months.

But nothing went well. Three days before his arrival, a trio of militant antiapartheid groups opposed to the sanction lifting demanded that the shows be canceled. Then, hours after Simon’s plane landed, someone pitched two grenades in front of the concert promoter’s Johannesburg offices in the middle of the night. No one was injured, but the incident gave the singer—and the world—a fresh reminder that peace in South Africa is still a long way off.

Ironically the political infighting into which Simon stumbled overshadowed another, more personal tragedy. On Dec. 10 Headman Shabalala, a founding member of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the a cappella group that had infused Simon’s Graceland album with its gentle, seductive rhythms, was slain in a mysterious roadside shooting. Returning from a family gathering. Shabalala had been driving to his home in Clermont, a black township outside the Indian Ocean city of Durban, when Sean Nicholas, 26, forced him off the highway at about 8 P.M. Nicholas, a white off-duty employee of a private security firm, later claimed that Shabalala was driving his blue Datsun pickup “recklessly” and that he, Nicholas, had sought to make a “citizen’s arrest.” When he confronted the singer, Nicholas said, Shabalala made a grab for Nicholas’s gun, which then accidentally fired.

According to police reports, however, Shabalala was found sitting in his truck, dead from a bullet through the mouth. Nonetheless, after a cursory, two-minute hearing before local magistrates the following day, Nicholas was freed on his own recognizance and $360 bail.

“He never even got out of the car,” the Shabalala family’s lawyer, Edmund Radebe, says of the late singer. “I’m not a doctor, but it’s difficult to believe that in a scuffle, if there was one, a shot could be so well aimed.” Adds Joseph Shabalala, 51, the victim’s brother and the founder of Black Mambazo: “He was not a man who liked to talk but who liked to listen or laugh—that’s all.”

At first, Simon had offered to cancel his concerts in protest but was urged by Joseph Shabalala to proceed. “One of the reasons I wanted to come here, sadly, was to say my final farewells to Headman and pay my respects to his family at his grave,” says Simon. And although Nicholas’s bail level is not atypical, “to me, it implies that life is very cheap if you’re a black man. I thought [this] was something that was not part of the ‘new’ South Africa.”

Headman Shabalala, 46, had grown up in the “old” South Africa, in a rural village outside the Natal province town of Ladysmith. In 1960 he had joined Joseph in forming a singing group that would base much of its music on the sounds of rural Zulu life: the soft gutturals used to direct oxen, the grunts of men lifting stones, the chants of dancers at community celebrations. Simon first saw the singers—four Shabalala brothers and six cousins—on a British TV documentary in the early 1980s. During a 1985 trip to South Africa to record music for Graceland, says Simon, “Joseph came to the studio, and he gave me one of his group’s cassettes. They were like lullabies. I used to go to sleep with the earphones on, listening to Black Mambazo.”

Invited to perform on the album, the singers gained worldwide exposure and quickly became one of the most successful South African musical acts ever. Their albums have now sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, and their 1987 Shaka Zulu, produced by Simon, won a Grammy for Best Folk Recording.

Last week, though, by the time Simon finally took the stage at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium, both Shabalala’s death and the week’s political turmoil had cast an impenetrable pall. Police saturated the arena, and hundreds more—including some in armored vehicles—patrolled outside. Although there was no serious trouble from the protesters—after hours of negotiating with Simon, they merely picketed the concert—the first two shows at the 80,000-seat rugby stadium drew, on average, fewer than 30,000 a night. Despite Simon’s dream of uniting white and black South Africans through music, more than 90 percent of the audience each night was white. The stadium, it turns out, was too far from the black townships, and the ticket price ($15 to $30) too high.

Meanwhile, Nicholas has retained his license to carry a gun and, four days after the shooting, returned to work while awaiting a Feb. 20 hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence for a murder trial. Headman Shabalala, survived by two wives and 11 children, was buried, in Zulu tradition, at the edge of the family’s rural kraal. Joseph recalls that the last time he saw Headman, at a concert in Nigeria, his younger brother seemed uneasy and had been praying and fasting to purify his spirit. “He just said, ‘I need to go home,’ ” says Joseph. “It ended up that his home was in heaven.”


SUSAN HACK in Johannesburg