The South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) lowers its revolutionary banners to salute one of the colossal icons of cultural activism of all time, Johnny Clegg.
For many decades, he was the voice of the voiceless.
The legend and icon used culture to unite his people who were divided by those who believed they were superior to others.
From an early age, Clegg became a champion and symbol of the Struggle. He was perhaps one of the few cultural activists who could break the walls of divisions and prejudices between races and tribes. He used his talents to inspire generations to fight against injustices, here and abroad.
Activists like Clegg, including other icons such as PJ Powers, defied the logic of racial segregation. Clegg’s defiance against apartheid was breathtaking and heroic. During the darkest days of apartheid, it was not a familiar sight to see a white person in the-then blacks-only townships.
The apartheid regime was ruthless in enforcing the Separate Amenities Act, influx controls and migrant labour policies.
The laws and policies were designed to keep blacks and whites apart and living far from one another. Black people were meant to visit white suburbs only as workers during prescribed hours. White folks were not allowed to visit black residential areas unless they were law enforcers.
It is this defiance against apartheid that engrained Clegg in the hearts of black people and every peace-loving South African. Black people admired him for reaching out to them by learning their languages, dancing with them and, during the hard times of massacres, mourning with them.
But more importantly, he mingled easily in townships and was a regular sight in the single-sex hostels of migrant workers.
Clegg’s fluent articulation and mastery of the Zulu language encouraged black people to learn Zulu and one another’s languages.
Saftu salutes Johnny Clegg as the champion of non-racialism. At the time when it was difficult to convince black people that non-racialism was the only viable future for our diverse society he stood firm to demonstrate that people could live with one another in harmony.
Together with the likes of Joe Slovo, Beyers Naudé and Bram Fischer, Clegg was prepared to forgo his inherited privileges and comforts to put his own life at risk in a common struggle to defeat the evil apartheid system.
This served as an important education weapon to remind black people that not all whites were racist and evil. If there were to be an award to be given to people who helped South Africa avert a civil war and racial strife, Clegg would be one of the first to receive it.
Through music, he united all the people of the world and broke down language, culture and geographical barriers. He was a symbol of the national cohesion that South Africa needs to attain.
Clegg defiantly performed and stayed in the townships, undermining the apartheid influx controls, including the curfews imposed during the era of the State of Emergencies.
He learnt Zulu better than many Nguni speakers could. He danced better than many people from rural areas. He never saw black people as a market. Clegg was a shining example of a humanitarian, a normal human being, a person fighting for justice and a freedom fighter.
It is no exaggeration to say South Africa and the world are poorer today without Clegg.
We call on all the people to honour him in a special way as we celebrate the 101 birthday of another great icon, Nelson Mandela. His legacy must be used to reinforce the centrality of a message that there is only one human race. The racial and tribal chauvinism must be buried in South Africa and the rest of the world. That’s how Clegg would like to be remembered.
Saftu wishes Clegg’s wife, children and the entire family strength at this difficult time.
We also send our deepest condolences to his lifetime friends and colleagues such as Sipho Mchunu and countless others in the music industry.
We call on all workers to honour him by buying his music to remind them of what he represented.
Farewell to you, dearest citizen of the world. You played your role and we have had no complaints.
Rest in peace. Qhawe lama qhawe.
Vavi is the Saftu's general secretary.