I seek a real Benson sell-out

The announcement this week that George Benson is to tour South Africa next June brought back memories of my first interaction with the legendary and popular jazz guitarist many years ago.
When Benson came to South Africa for the first time in the early 1980s, I was a young reporter at a paper called the Cape Herald, which was aimed at the “coloured” community. But more than that, I was also a political activist involved in youth and civic structures in Hanover Park.
Up until his visit to South Africa was announced, Benson had been, as we used to say on the Cape Flats, “my biggest fan”. Don’t ask. We used to speak like that. People used to ask me, as a child, whose dad I was when they meant to ask who my dad was.
But I digress.
The very first vinyl I bought was Benson’s Weekend in LA, an album I still have to this day and which I still listen to on vinyl when I have a chance.
Benson was an integral part of my growing up years. I recall an English lesson at high school where one of my fellow learners explained that he listened to Benson’s music to broaden his vocabulary. He used as an example the word “masquerade” which he had heard in one of Benson’s songs. This encouraged him to consult a dictionary to find out its meaning. After that, he used the word “masquerade” at every opportunity.
But Benson’s trip to South Africa – while there was an international cultural embargo against the country in opposition to apartheid – was a difficult pill to swallow for someone like me, who was committed to the struggle.
I could not bring myself to attend his concert even though I could legitimately claim to have been working.
The concert, of course, was sold out within hours.
I did, however, attend the press conference he held on arrival at the then DF Malan Airport, where I asked him why he chose to come to South Africa and break the cultural embargo. He replied that he was “only a musician and not a politician”, which was the typical response of all artists who defied the cultural boycott and came to South Africa.
The following day, the Cape Herald carried my story on the tour and the press conference – ahead of the concert – with the headline saying something along the lines of “Benson is a sell-out”, a clever play on his ability to fill the Good Hope Centre and what we perceived to be his political opportunism or, at most, his political naivety.
Not going to that concert tested my commitment to the struggle in a major way. Like most young people on the Cape Flats I grew up with his music and knew the words to most of his songs. I consoled myself by saying that this was a small sacrifice to make for the struggle. There were many others who had made much bigger sacrifices.
However, I quietly enjoyed the opportunity I had to meet him at the press conference and to ask him a question, which meant that I engaged with someone who was one of my childhood musical heroes, even though I was now disappointed in him.
I did eventually go and see Benson perform, twice, but this was many years into our democracy when most people had forgiven others for their apartheid-era indiscretions or had politely forgotten about them.
I figured that, if Nelson Mandela could forgive FW de Klerk and PW Botha and have tea with Betsie Verwoerd, and the ANC could accept people like Vlakplaas commander Dirk Coetzee and apartheid spy Olivia Forsyth into their ranks, then I could forgive Benson for breaking the cultural boycott but also for destroying my belief in one of the people I grew up admiring as a youngster.
Thinking about my first interaction with Benson made me realise once again how far we have come as a country where we no longer have to contend with sports and cultural boycotts against us, where we can all enjoy supporting our sporting teams when they play against foreign opposition and where we can go and watch whatever musicians come into our country without feeling like we are betraying the struggle against apartheid.
If I get an opportunity to see him perform next June, and I probably will, I will do so without any hang-ups and will sit back and enjoy the music. I will probably sing along too, in the way we do in Cape Town.
I hope this time he will be a sell-out once again, but without the negative political connotations.

(This was first published as a column in the Weekend Argus on Sunday 8 November 2015)