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Johnny Clegg epitomised rainbow nation Madiba dreamed of

Johnny Clegg performing some of his greatest hits at a Durban concert in March 2005. File photo: Shelley Kjonstad.

Johnny Clegg performing some of his greatest hits at a Durban concert in March 2005. File photo: Shelley Kjonstad.

Published Jul 21, 2019


Every time I hear a rendition of Asimbonanga or Spirit of the Great Heart this week salty tears have started streaming down my face. 

I never thought the passing of an artist I never met could affect me so greatly, but deep down it is because Johnny Clegg represented the rainbow nation Madiba was so committed to, and he held up a mirror to our souls. 

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His life is a story about a South Africa that belongs to all those who live in it. He was a white man who loved Africa deeply, and he held on tightly to everything it represented - its authenticity, rhythms, isiZulu culture and vibrant dance, history, and most of all its value system. 

He may have physically be born in England, but he was raised as an African, and he spent every year of his life embracing that reality and immersing himself in its richness. 

He loved the Zulu people so much that they embraced him as one of their own - to them he was the white Zulu.

For those of us who spent time living overseas at the height of apartheid, he had a term for us - the scatterlings of Africa. 

He reminded us that we are forever bound to our African roots, and he made us dream of coming home. 

It is what Madiba believed - that we are the sum of our parts, and those who had left needed to come home and make a contribution to the new South Africa. 

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Somewhere deep down inside is an incredible admiration for Clegg’s passion that compelled him to buck the incomprehensible system that was bent on keeping people apart. 

He saw something so real and alive in the Zulu migrant labourers, who happened to be some of the poorest and most exploited people in apartheid South Africa. 

Their lives may have been a daily struggle to survive, but their souls were bursting with meaning. As he himself said, if he couldn’t overthrow the fences that kept him apart from them, he made a hole and went through the middle of the fence, oblivious to the consequences. 

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Clegg may not have joined the ranks of our revolutionaries who fought to overthrow the racist State, but he was never going to live the life imposed on him - he would do quite the opposite. 

Having lived in Zambia at the age of 11,  Clegg had already spent some of his formative youth in a non-racial school with more black students and teachers than white, and had joined a gang of black boys. 

His weekends were spent with his gang making wire cars, and in this liberated world there were no artificial barriers between black and white. 

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When he came to South Africa at the age of 12 he felt isolated, and his initial intersection with the masses was when his father took him to Alexandra township to teach a bugle band how to play the drums. 

It was at the age of 14 that Clegg’s life was irrevocably changed when he met a 24-year-old Zulu man by the name of Charlie Mzila, who was standing outside a shop in Yeoville playing a guitar. 

Mzila couldn’t speak English, but Clegg was mesmerized by his guitar that was tuned completely differently and could make the maskande sound. 

It wasn’t long before Mzila was teaching Clegg how to play his Africanised Bellini guitar on the rooftop of the building where he worked. 

It was there that Clegg rediscovered the sense of freedom that he had felt and cherished in Zambia. Mzila introduced Clegg to the world of hostels and shebeens in Hillbrow.

How many white 14-year-olds living in Johannesburg in 1967 could be found spending evenings and weekends with the workers as they drank and socialised in urban buildings, until he was dragged out by the caretakers or the police? 

How many 15-year-old white South Africans were being arrested for spending time in the migrant hostels, dancing for hours on end? Luckily for him he had a mother who understood his passion, who herself was a cabaret and jazz singer who dreamed of becoming the next Ella Fitzgerald. 

Perhaps she was living out her dreams vicariously through Clegg, and therefore gave him the freedom to be who he wanted to be, although at the beginning she didn’t know what a hostel was. 

The enduring image I have of Clegg from the stories of his youth, is him being smuggled in the centre of a dance team in order to conceal his entry into a hostel.

“I was sixteen and I would arrive at the hostel and the dance team would come out to the gates. Then I would go into the middle of the dance team and they’d sing and dance like they usually do and go back into the hostel, with me in the middle. So the guards, the blackjack municipal guards couldn’t see me. We’d go into a room and that’s how we’d practice. There were 60 dancers in the room and all the beds were up against the wall to make space,” Clegg recalled in one of his many storytelling sessions. 

To Clegg the hostels were a secret world, laid out before him like a cultural carpet. He didn’t see the residents as labourers, cleaners or shop assistants, they were warriors. 

In the end it was Sipho Mchunu who was to become Clegg’s lifelong friend. Mchunu, who was a gardener working in Johannesburg, had heard of a white boy singing and playing guitar, and one day Clegg came home from school to find Mchunu on his doorstep saying he wanted to challenge him to a guitar duel. 

Mchunu could not read or write but he was a musical master, who went on to teach Clegg isiZulu, and together they ultimately started the band Juluka. 

Mchunu and Clegg became the icons of social cohesion and non-racialism at the height of apartheid, and made many young people question the nonsensical notion of separate development. 

Beyond being among the greatest musicians South Africa has produced, Clegg’s greatest legacy is that he taught us the meaning of what it is to be human.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor

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