Johnny Clegg had fervent fans stomping and singing along when he performed some of his greatest hits at a Durban concert in March 2005. 
Johnny Clegg had fervent fans stomping and singing along when he performed some of his greatest hits at a Durban concert in March 2005. 

Understanding why Johnny Clegg was so revered

By Mike Siluma Time of article published Jul 21, 2019

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To say musician Johnny Clegg, who died this week, gave whiteness in South Africa a human face may sound hyperbolic. But it’s not.

To understand why, we have to go back to the South Africa Clegg grew up in, and which made him.

This was the pre-1990s South Africa. Apartheid was the law of the land, aimed at socially, religiously and physically keeping citizens apart, based on race. In that scheme, whites were the superior people, and blacks the lower class.

In a world where the vast majority of white people chose to obey and abet the apartheid system, Clegg would stand out as a rebel - what many whites would have seen as a traitor to the cause. That cause was to reserve the fat of the land for whites, having turned the black person into a second-class citizen.

Clegg’s most symbolic crossing of the apartheid line was of his own volition, to take the trouble to learn isiZulu, thereby also getting to understand Zulu culture. Reaching beyond the privileged life of white suburbia, he frequented the hostels around Johannesburg, glorified hovels, home to black men who came to work in the city.

There he learned ukusina and other traditional dance forms as well. He also met Sipho Mchunu. Not restricted by white conventions of the time, he saw beyond Mchunu’s blackness and lowly vocation as a gardener - the pair subsequently forming a lifelong friendship and artistic partnership.

He chose to perform in the townships before black audiences - giving a lie to apartheid’s propaganda of blacks harbouring innate hostility towards whites (the swart gevaar used to dragoon whites into the apartheid laager).

In his music too, Clegg sought to dispel the apartheid myth of whites’ natural superiority. For instance, in the iconic song he made with Mchunu, Impi, he celebrated the historic Battle of Isandlwana (where the Zulu army defeated the British colonial forces).

Of course, it has to be one of the great ironies of apartheid South Africa that, while it was based on suppressing black citizens to the purported advantage their white compatriots, it produced, over time, a number of whites who bravely rebelled and challenged the system’s very foundations.

With his actions, Johnny Clegg earned a place in that league of white patriots.

But defiance of apartheid and its enforcers came at a heavy personal cost to many, such as:

Bram Fischer, who spurned a life of privilege which came with being born into the Afrikaner political elite, joined the anti-apartheid struggle and led the defence in the Rivonia Trial. He was jailed under apartheid security laws.

Ruth First, journalist and anti-apartheid activist. She was assassinated with a letter bomb while in exile in Mozambique.

David Webster, an anti-apartheid activist who was, like Clegg, an anthropologist. He was shot dead by an apartheid death squad. There are countless more examples.

Apart from being persecuted by the apartheid state, whites who actively opposed apartheid were ostracised by their community, and seen as “k****r boeties”.

Johnny Clegg may not have been the first white person to reject apartheid. But his life is testament to the fact that even during the dark days of the system, there were those of his ilk who made the solitary, sometimes fatal, decision to stand in solidarity with the black struggle for freedom. Those who sought to assert the common humanity of blacks and whites.

** Siluma is a political analyst and host of Karibu on Kaya FM 95.9.

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