Annie Lennox – Bono with bongos

In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, South Africa is a notably more battered, less idealistic nation than the one that existed briefly around the time of the transition to majority rule. In mourning Mandela, we have experienced shades of the euphoria and unity that swept South Africa following the successful democratic elections of 1994. Yet, the current mood of the nation is dark.

Ordinary, grieving people interviewed on South African television and radio over the past few weeks have generally argued that our riven, economically unequal and politically stalemated country needs to reclaim what Mandela stood for. We need better leaders, and better ideas to generate growth and equality. We have problems and, what’s more, we know that we do.

British popstar Annie Lennox clearly hasn’t been listening to South African radio or watching the television. Which is surprising, because she was in South Africa in the aftermath of Mandela’s death. In fact, she was the only international act to appear at a memorial concert in honour of Mandela at Cape Town stadium last week. The concert was one of those rare events in South Africa where people of all races and classes sang and danced their joyous way through anthems, struggle songs, pop music and generally tolerable speeches from politicians from across the political spectrum. And then there was Lennox.

She was the only act on the night who turned up late. Though only by five or 10 minutes, it was noticeable because it prompted the evening’s presenter to burble nervously over the unexpected gap in the programme. When Lennox did grace us with her presence, she was met with a roar of excitement from the crowd. Dressed in black pants and an ‘HIV Positive’ sweater, she was beautiful, glamorous - every inch the popstar. Except she didn’t sing.

Instead, she took up a set of bongo drums (yes, bongo drums) and began to rap monotonously, demanding at intervals that the audience clap with her to ‘give her their energy’. Everyone co-operated at first. Her chant began to take shape. South Africans, Lennox intoned, must practise safe sex. We must wear condoms. No more sons and daughters should be born with AIDS (‘clap with me, I need your energy’).

The audience, slightly less enamoured, eyed Lennox. Lennox’s rant caught steam. South Africans must stop being violent, she chanted, banging her bongo drums excitedly. A rag-tag band of musicians did something or other in the background, but since Lennox wasn’t singing, it was hard to know what that was.

Lennox’s bongo-drum wisdom droned on for 10 minutes. The audience was now thoroughly bored and restless. Surely, when this ends, she will sing. Two young girls in front of me said to each other, ‘who the hell is this woman?’. Finally, Lennox’s sermon ended, by which time she had drummed the audience into a torpor. There was a grateful and expectant pause. Now, we thought, the songs will come. But they didn’t. Lennox bowed proudly to the audience and walked off the stage like a wagging finger. It was over. The only solace for the bemused crowd was that the South African acts who followed were so brilliant and professional that they resuscitated and rescued the night from Lennox’s angst.

Lennox may see herself as an activist, but she is first and foremost a popstar. Her astoundingly patronising performance last Wednesday evening made Bono seem like a master of subtlety. South Africans do not need to be preached at by a British popstar banging a bongo drum and not even bothering to do what she is famous for: singing pop songs. Lennox’s behaviour exemplifies the tone-deaf arrogance and audacity of preachy celebrities who have forgotten why they became famous in the first place. If she had stopped for a second to listen to the radio, turn on the TV or speak to people during her trip, she would have realised that ordinary South Africans know all about the problems that our society faces.

Someone should drum that into Lennox and her ilk, should they care to hear.

Lauren van Vuuren is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town.

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