Smash Hits, 23rd November - 6th December 1994

An African Dream?

Eternal are one of the biggest British bands to visit South Africa since apartheid ended. Tony Cross joined them in a country still suffering from the hangover of racism...

Eternal step off the plane in South Africa and are ushered through Johannesburg airport to the immigration area where they find a Smash Hits journalist and photographer waiting to see if they'll be let into the country. We've been sitting there for over an hour. "Isn't that Smash Hits?" says Louise to Kéllé, looking over. "Hi!" waves Kéllé, and then the four of them, plus management man Andy, record company woman Sally, and Michael the minder, come over to say hello. "How ya doing?" says Easther, and it's starting to dawn on them that we probably wouldn't be sitting on two grey plastic chairs in the immigration area of Johannesburg airport after an overcrowded and enduring half hour flight if we had the choice.

"Er, what are you doing here?" asks Sally.

We tell them the tale. You get the feeling that some in South Africa are still suspicious of journalists and anyone carrying more than a Kodak Instamatic under their arm. The immigration people don't want to let us in. The chat with the band helps. Our tale that we are here to cover the band's visit to South Africa and their appearance at the huge concert on Saturday at least starts to look like it's the truth.

"It cood bi tree or four howerz - if ya git in at ool," says an immigration lady - the most fitting example of a "poison dwarf" I've ever seen - sneering at our grovelling forms pleading for admission. But, eventually, they let us in. Thanks. Time to find out from Kéllé why Eternal are here...

When did you know you were coming to South Africa?
It's something that we didn't know was ever going to be pulled off. In the end we didn't find out we were coming for sure until just a couple of weeks ago.

What did you think about coming here with its history of apartheid and troubles?
I was happy because we were coming to an ethnic, native country, but on the other hand I was worried because of the way black people have been treated here. I wondered how they would accept us as a mixed group. I thought they might think we had turned agains blacks because we have a white member in the group, but I hoped they would look on us positively, thinking if they can get on, then so can we.

Did you consider not coming?
No, we all wanted to come. We wanted to find out about the changes that have meant to have taken place here for ourselves.

So you didn't have a problem coming here, even though the effects of apartheid are still around?
As far as I am concerned I know inside how I feel. I know that eveyone is different, everyone is individual, but at the same time everyone is equal.

On Saturday we travel with Eternal to the concert at the 60,000-capacity Ellis Park stadium. Since we've arrived we've found out that despite a drop in the number of shootings on the streets of Johannesburg, it's still not safe to walk about.

"I've done a bit of research on the place," says security man Michael, "and it's naugh-ee out there, very naugh-ee". Oh well.

Eternal and Sting represent the "Western" acts on the bill. It's mid-afternoon when we set off for the stadium. When we arrive, it's through, one, two gates, then into another bus and back through three, four gates, along the concrete corridors and into the room marked ETERNAL. In ten minutes time they'll be on.

Don't you lot get nevous?
Kéllé: (shrugging) No.

What, not ever?
Louise: Not really, I mean, I've got a funny feeling in my stomach, like butterflies, but it's not really nervousness.
Easther: Have we got any hot water and lemon? (It's for her throat before she goes on. She begins warming up her voice.)
Louise: (Sipping an orange drink) Eugh! This tastes funny!
Vernie: Have we got any mineral water?

It will be the biggest audience you've ever performed for...
Louise: I don't think it's that. I know this will be different. We really don't know what to expect. That's why I feel a bit different. Michael: Two minutes girls!
Vernie: Michael, can you... Michael: Yeah, yeah. (To us) Can you two come outside, the girls want to pray now...

A couple of minutes later and the girls appear, calm, cool - Easther hiding behind sunglasses; then we're ushered from the dressing room, back into a mini-bus (you can't walk anywhere around here!) to the back of the stage. Out they step one by one, still collected, still cool, and after an intro from a top pop South African DJ, they're on. And boy do they kick ass.

The 45-minute set has all the hits, gets the crowd rockin' and before long 45,000 South Africans are behind the girls from London. It's thrilling, it's exciting, it's blindin'. The voices are spot on, their routines faultless, the reaction ecstatic. They come off. Easther wraps her neck up in a scarf, the rest put their jackets on, and they sit down, panting.

A strange man in baggy trousers, wooley hat and old cardie comes up to them. Michael the security man lets him by. How did this old fella get back here and wander around like he owns the place?

"You were excellent," he says. "...Thanks," says Easther, breaking the silence. "Er, thanks," say Louise and Kéllé, unsure. "Are you going to play Demolition Man tonight?" asks Easther. The rest of us click into place. It's Sting. Onstage your mum might love him. Backstage she probably wouldn't let him in the house.

Time to grab Vernie for questions.

What did you think of the concert?
I was a little disappointed.

But it went brilliantly...
I didn't think there were many black faces there.

It was only about one in four...
Hmmm... I know. I was hoping it would be a lot more than that.

Why do you think that is?
I don't think that things have changed here much at all. I think it's terrible that the news you get in the outside world is that everything has changed and eveything is OK. It's going to take a long time for things to be normal, but black people here are still obviously poorly treated.

When do you think things will change?
I think the answer has to come with education, and until education is free and equal then there can be no equality.

Have you ever campaigned against racism?
Not as such, but racism exists not only here but in England too. I was the victim of racial abuse not that long ago. I'm taking action about it and luckily I can do that, but I really wouldn't want to live here...

The following day we take a trip out to a restaurant set in grounds filled with zebras, peacocks and other exotic african aniamls like, er, sheep. The promise of Zulu dancing perks up the prospects a bit. We park up. We sit down outside. Louise chases a peacock. And then it starts to rain. And rain. And rain.

"Do you know this is only the third day of rain in six months," someone says. Very helpful. The Zulu dancers' drums get wet. The zebras get wet. The peacocks get wet. Even the er, sheep, get wet. Raindrops the size of fairy cakes, so we retire to the safety of a dry seat and a hot coffee... it's time to grab Louise...

What keeps you going?
I think it was the buzz we got from that crowd yesterday. Performing for your fans, making people happy, that's what gets you up in the mornings.

You're a bit of a daydreamer when you're away from home aren't you?
Who told you that?

You are though, aren't you?
I like to take myself elsewhere...

What do you think about?
I daydream about lots of things, haha. I'm just thinking about home and things like that...

Just "things"...
Well, you know...

Like what?
Lots of things...

Uh, family, friends, home, special people...

A boy?
It could be anything really!

Do you lot get on each other's nerves when you're away?
No, not really. I think we know each other's faults by now, so we just make allowances.

What are the faults...
The other girls say they talk to me and I don't listen to a word of it. Vernie you just stay clear of until noon because she's no good in the mornings, Kéllé's always "up" and when Easther gets tired you just have to make sure she gets to bed and gets some sleep.

Was your mum worried about you coming to South Africa?
My mum worries about me wherever I am!

How often do you call her?
I ring her every day. I always do.

The rain cuts the Zulu dancing short, and now, on arrival at the hotel, the sun begins to shine. Typical. The girls have some interviews lined up. Lounging in front of tables teeming with scribblers at the root-top pool on the 31st floor of our fancy hotel, Eternal chat about their visit, what they're all about and where they buy their clothes. The sun may have come out, but too late, our visit's ending. It's time to get some final reflections from Easther.

You seem very cool all of the time, and quite quiet. Is that just what you're like?
No, it's not. I did an interview a little while ago and it was obvious that the person got the wrong idea about me. I'm quiet because I have a very dry sense of humour. When I'm with people who don't know me vey well I have to be careful what I say because they might get the wrong idea.

How do you transform into such a bundle of energy on stage then?
It's easy, it's what I love. I've always wanted to perform.

Don't you feel weird in a country where the four of you may never have met?
I know it would have been difficult for Eternal to have ever existed here, but I would still like to think that something would have made it possible. I'd like to think we would have been one of the first mixed groups - perhaps an example that others could follow.

Smash Hits left Eternal in the midst of their South African promotion. They had another gig lined up at Jo'Burg's Caesar's Palace club before leaving. Most people here have hope. On our travels we saw black kids that currently walk eight miles to school or hitch-hike along the main roads. Many blacks are still living in poverty, and there's an obvious lack of health, education, housing and transport services. it looks like the vote was only one small step towards freedom.