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This story is about Zulu cultural sensibilities through the eyes of a white immigrant adolescent

Published Oct 11, 2021


Scatterling of Africa by Johnny Clegg is the extract from the book that the “white Zulu maskandi” aptly named Juluka by his fans, wrote before he passed away in 2019, leaving behind his wife and children who have decided to release its contents for publication:

“My primal motivation to enter the world of the Zulu migrant worker culture was not driven by a personal statement against apartheid. I was 14-years-old and stumbled on the Zulu maskandi guitar music and, later, war dancing, and this brought me into conflict with the authorities.

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I was not looking for politics. Politics found me. The laws of cultural and racial segregation were for me just potholes in the road that the world threw at me, testing my resolve and, like the Zulu migrants I admired, being arrested – and I was arrested many times, the first when I was 15 – for me was ‘cool’ because, like them, I had to deal with the daily obstacles the authorities placed in front of us.

I learned to operate with what I had. Here’s a way of looking at it: you are walking down the road, and for absolutely no reason, you find a fence put arbitrarily across it. At least two basic responses could come to you. You could either look around and say, ‘Why is there a fence over here? This is crazy. I am going to make a stand over this. I am going to complain – gimme a phone!’ This would be considered the logical and conscientious response.

Or you could say, ‘Hmm, there’s a fence blocking the road. I need to get to the other side. Let me find a hole in the fence. And so you find a hole and get through’. The fence presented a challenge, and you enjoyed having risen to the challenge and solved the problem. You found a way through.

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You carry on with your day. The issue of why there should be a fence in the first place washes away as more important stuff like music and dance occupy your mind. I was of this second persuasion, the find-the-hole-in-the-fence kinda guy, not the why-is-there-a-fence–in-the-first-place kinda guy. I had no deep political analysis, but I never let the fence stop me. I always found a hole.

It was only later, when I went to university, that the question preoccupied my thinking and shaped the later part of my political outlook and affected the Juluka project. But it wasn’t the catalyst. Love for maskandi music and isiBhaca, isiShameni and uMzansi dancing in and for themselves was the initial, primal motivation.

The other part was the Zulu migrants. To me, as a young impressionable adolescent, they were the living embodiment of the great Zulu warrior kingdom that fought the British and the Boers, defending their sovereignty against white encroachment. They lost those wars but continued as warriors and survivors.

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They maintained their fierce identity, something I lacked, and something I hoped that I could perhaps learn and inculcate in my own life. One thing I always admired was the urban world’s constant failure to domesticate the warrior and sanitise the Zulu migrant tribesman.

Their resistance to apartheid and modernisation took the form of constantly affirming their warrior values and traditional world. They were the real deal, the people who defeated the British at Isandlwana.

Which young boy wouldn’t find them cool? They chose their ancestors over Christianity, their traditional healers over Western medicine, their sangomas over psychologists, traditional cuisine over fast food, traditional clothing over Western couture, praise poetry over the newspaper.

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They chose tribal law over Western legislation and fought full-out tribal wars when all else failed. They were the kings of ‘self-help’ in a country where only whites were protected by the full extent of the law.

That was what made me love this group of people, and that’s the story you need to know before you could ever understand how a 14-year-old Jewish kid by descent, the grandchild of immigrants, landed up forming the first traditional Zulu crossover band inside the apartheid state with his partner Sipho Mchunu.

So a lot of this story is about Zulu cultural sensibilities as seen through the eyes of a young white immigrant adolescent, things that I was exposed to and embraced, and which landed up shaping a good part of my identity, my value system and my music.

The shape of my story is not strictly chronological or linear. It winds through canyons of neural pathways with mental sinews hardened by the repetition of days. This flickering landscape is where I collect and make sense of all the incidents and the meanings that are attached to this gnarled mind’s eye like some ancient cataract.

Existential archaeology. Digging around old geographies and awkward sites of personal struggle, sifting through passing moments that carried hints of tomorrow and its promises, and then failed. Testing innocence and transforming innocence into endurance. To endure. To keep going. I kept going. But to tell a story, you need words, those incredible markers made of sounds floating on breath. These are my words.”

Related Topics:

Culture and Tradition