Dubbed the ‘White Zulu’, Johnny Clegg, one of South African most celebrated musicians, anthropologist and anti-apartheid activist dies at 66.
By David E. Kaplan
The news broke in 2015 that the British-born South African musician, who blended western and Zulu music had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. However, he continued to perform while receiving treatment. Then in September 2017, came the announcement that he was embarking on a final international tour that he called “The Final Journey”.
That journey came to an end this July when the icon who had defied the country’s apartheid-era racial barriers, celebrated its new democracy under Nelson Mandela and taken his Zulu-infused rock music around the world, finally succumbed to his terminal illness.
Clegg’s mother’s family were Jewish immigrants from Poland, and the singer describes his upbringing as “secular Jewish.” As a child he spent several months living in Israel, which he again visited in 2003 when his sister living in Ra’anana passed away.
He had planned a much-awaited revisit to Israel – this time to tour with his band in 2010 – hence the reason this writer called him on phone to interview him for Telfed, a South African community magazine in Israel that I had been editor of at the time. I tracked the musician down while on tour of New Zealand to a hotel room in Auckland. Within hours of a press release that Clegg would be performing in Israel, the Telfed office, which had undertaken to promote the concert in Israel, was inundated with inquiries.
A world away in Auckland, Clegg was happy to hear this upbeat update. “Israel is probably the country closest to my heart in terms of-ex-pats,” with close members of his family living in the Jewish homeland. “I have visited on two occasions, but this will be the first time that I will be performing there,” he enthused.
One of the many hits he would be singing would be “Scatterlings of Africa” which rocked the charts in the UK “enabling me to give up lecturing in Anthropology at Wits University and focus on music.” In 1988 the song was featured on the soundtrack to the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.
Clegg had once explained the inspiration for the song in a live concert, saying “When we wrote this song, the oldest human bones in the world had just been discovered at Olduvai Gorge, in Africa. So this is a song about how everyone can claim to be African … if they want to, that is.”
Harassment To Harmony
Prior to his overseas success, “making a living exclusively from music in apartheid South Africa was difficult. Our racially integrated band was refused airtime on the radio and our concerts were routinely broken-up by the police, who would barge onto the stage with dogs and shotguns.”
His band Juluka was an unusual musical partnership for the time in South Africa, with a white man (Clegg) and a black man (Mchunu) performing together. The band, which grew to a six-member group (with three white and three black musicians) by the time it released its first album Universal Men in 1979, faced harassment and censorship, with Clegg later remarking that it was “impossible” to perform in public in South Africa.
Clegg made it ‘possible’!
The group tested the apartheid-era laws, touring and performing in private venues, including universities, churches, hostels, and even private homes in order to attract an audience, as national broadcasters would not play their music.
The year that Clegg planned to tour Israel, was proving “very busy.”
Earlier in 2010, he told the writer, “We performed at a 9-day concert in Rabat, Morocco,” where his group joined some of the biggest names in music, such as Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys and Kylie Minogue. Clegg had also recently finished recording his own compositions for a Nelson Mandela audiobook with narration by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He had enjoyed a strong association with the iconic former state president and performed frequently to raise funds for the Nelson Mandela Foundation to combat AIDS.
As an adolescent in Johannesburg‘s northern suburbs, he related befriending Charlie Mzila, a flat cleaner by day and musician by night, “drawing me into the city’s Zulu migrant workers’ music and dance scene. Through Charlie, I mastered the Zulu language and the maskandi guitar as well as the isishameni dance styles of the migrants.”
Johnny was on the way to becoming a “White Zulu”.
Clegg’s close association with black musicians frequently led to his arrest. His first arrest was at the age of fifteen and – in SA legal parlance – it was for violating the Group Areas Act that prohibited people of different races from congregating together outside select areas and at select times.
He explained that “Juluka means “sweat” and also had been the name of a bull owned by Mchunu.
Having myself been a student of Anthropology at the University of Natal, Durban, this writer was familiar with Clegg’s earlier academic career lecturing at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and the University of Natal, and writing several seminal scholarly papers on Zulu music and dance.
Clegg had a talent for integrating his knowledge of Anthropology with his music, which led him in the early stages of his musical career, to include in his songs snippets of Zulu culture.
Later, his lyrics would contain coded political messages and references to the battle against Apartheid, although Clegg maintained that Juluka was not originally intended to be a political band. “Politics found us,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1996. In a 1989 interview with the Sunday Times, Clegg denied the label of “political activist”. For him, “a political activist is someone who has committed himself to a particular ideology. I don’t belong to any political party. I stand for human rights.”
Nevertheless, Juluka’s music was both implicitly and explicitly political; it proved a thorn in the flesh of a political system based on racial separation – Apartheid. As a result of the political messages imbedded in their music, Clegg and other band members were arrested several times and concerts routinely broken up. While harassed at home, Juluka managed to tour abroad playing in Europe, Canada and the USA , and had two platinum and five gold albums, emerging as a major international success.
During a concert in 1999, Clegg was joined onstage by South African President Nelson Mandela, who danced as he sang the anti-Apartheid protest song dedicated to the President, “Asimbonanga“. Meaning – “We have not seen him” – Asimbonanga was one of the first songs to call for Nelson Mandela’s release while still imprisoned on Robben Island.
Paying tribute to his father, his son Jesse Clegg, expressed: “Johnny leaves deep footprints in the hearts of every person that considers him/herself to be an African. He showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity. An anthropologist that used his music to speak to every person. With his unique style of music, he traversed cultural barriers like few others. In many of us, he awakened awareness.”
“They are the scatterlings of Africa
Each uprooted one
On the road to Phelamanga
Where the world began
I love the scatterlings of Africa”
Asimbonanga was an anti-apartheid song by Savuka, from their 1987 album Third World Child. It was a tribute to Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island the time of song’s release, and other anti-apartheid activists.
*Title picture: WHITE ZULU: Johnny Clegg (Picture: Tsheko Kabasi)