Michael Jackson makes non-news, wows South Africa


SUN CITY, South Africa -- The centerpiece of this resort in South Africa's Northwest Province is the fake ruin of a fictitious kingdom. Inside one of its main ballrooms yesterday was a fake old wall, complete with fake cracks, flanked by fake stretched animal skins.

It was the perfect locale for a fake press conference.

Since his arrival in Johannesburg on Wednesday, Michael Jackson's every footstep has been followed by a breathless South African press, starting with his arrival at the airport before a mob of adoring fans.

That's if 200 is a mob.

Then there was his appearance at a monument to those who died in anti-apartheid uprisings at a Soweto cemetery, a large umbrella guarding his allegedly sensitive skin from the strong winter sun in the 6,000-foot altitude, again accompanied by a huge crowd of screaming youngsters. Well, about 400 of Soweto's 4 million citizens turned out.

Then there were the television images of his Thursday night visit to Nelson Mandela's suburban house. It was Mandela's 78th birthday and Jackson joined a small party with a bunch of kids. For some reason when "Happy Birthday" was sung, the only professional singer in the room just smiled and didn't join in. Guess you've got to pay to hear Michael sing.

If his presence did not excite the vast majority of the populace, this did not bother the local media, which still see attention from the types of celebrities who shunned this country in apartheid years as a confirmation of South Africa's ascension to its rightful place in the constellation of nations.

But all along, it was not evident exactly what Jackson was doing here. This was supposed to be cleared up at a Friday press conference in Sun City. Speculation, reported almost as fact, centered on plans for Jackson bringing in a Middle Eastern partner to develop a theme park as part of the Sun City complex.

Mini-Las Vegas

It made sense. When Sun City was developed as sort of a mini-Las Vegas, its builders took advantage of its location in one of the allegedly independent black homelands to make it a gambling mecca.

But in the new South Africa, without the homelands that were designed to deny South African citizenship to blacks, gambling will eventually be available in 40 casinos across the country. Sun City needs more than its hundreds of slot machines, its two golf courses, its fake Lost City kingdom, its artificial wave lake and its variety of hotels to induce people to make the two-hour drive from Johannesburg.

So hundreds of reporters, most making that drive, came to the ballroom to chronicle Jackson's entry into South African culture. The back of the hall was filled by a phalanx of TV cameras, the likes of which had not been seen since Mandela declared victory after the 1994 elections. Public relations types whispered breathlessly that this was one of the few press conferences Jackson had ever given, as stern-faced security guards scanned the crowd from the edges of the stage.

Jackson music pounded out of a sound system. The lights dimmed. A Jackson video played on the big screen. A Jackson staffer came out and announced the ground rules. No rushing of the stage by photographers. Anyone who did so would be dealt with severely. A welcome from the general manager of Sun City. An introduction of the world's greatest recording artist.

Then there he was, every fleck of pancake makeup perfectly in place, a strand of hair coming out from under his black hat draped across his forehead, lips colored ruby red, his weird pseudo-military outfit making him look like the star of a neighborhood production of the "Nutcracker" ballet.

First he went to one side of the stage and waved at photographers. Then he did the same on the other side. Then he stood behind the microphone.

"First I would like to say something sincerely from the bottom of my heart, how happy I am to be here in South Africa," he said. He spoke of the warm greeting he had received wherever he went, the love he felt from the people.

"These sunglasses are not to make me look cool, they are a facade so you will not have to see my tears," he said, his voice choking with emotion as he described his feelings for South Africa. "I like it so much I'm looking for a house here."

He said that he was sorry he was not able to play in South Africa on his last tour but that he would be coming and playing in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg in January 1997.

Then that was that. Jackson left the stage. No questions. No theme park. His promoter came up and started reading off concert dates in places like Bucharest, Seoul and New Delhi. Suddenly Sun City management types said they didn't know from any planned theme park. There was nothing in the works. Couldn't imagine where anyone had gotten that idea.

So a two-hour drive -- and two-hours back -- got you three minutes of Jackson and a concert schedule.

The hype began to seem as fake as the earthquake that shakes the bridge to the Lost Kingdom every hour on the hour.

Not that this bothered the South African press. In the time it took to drive back to Johannesburg, the city's afternoon daily had hit the streets. Across the top of its front page, a huge headline screamed, "Jacko to perform in three SA cities."

Pub Date: 7/20/96

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