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Johnny Clegg’s life a lesson to white South Africa

Instead of creating more division in a fractured South Africa, musician Johnny Clegg built bridges and advocated for equality.

If whites on the southern tip of the continent have not learned what it is to live without the chains of racial prejudice from the life of Johnny Clegg, then they will never, ever learn and may as well drive themselves to the sea.

Clegg who died aged 66-years-old from pancreatic cancer in Johannesburg on 16 July, was a free soul who embodied non-racialism and kicked white supremacy out the window by embracing the culture, language and music of a people considered not only inferior but savage by his race.

If most of white South Africa had learnt from his life, many would be fluent in at least one indigenous black language and learnt to properly pronounce the names of their African colleagues and servants.

Such a simple thing as being able to pronounce someone’s name properly is a gigantic act to eradicating airs of racial superiority. It’s a bridge that would help douse the brewing racial tensions and a seeming return to little tribal and racial enclaves in the country today.

Clegg, by learning and mastering the Zulu language and culture and actually living it, broke down these barriers even among black people who saw themselves as inferior to the white man. Although he was called White Zulu, he actually detested this label for he saw himself not as merely a member of a tribe, but a complete human being who was part of a nation.

In 2012 Clegg was nominated to receive the Order of Ikhamanga which is awarded to South Africans who have excelled in the arts, culture, literature, music, journalism or sport. The order is awarded in gold for exceptional achievement, in silver for excellent achievement and in bronze for outstanding achievement.

The Presidency said at the time Clegg was awarded in silver for “his excellent contribution to and achievement in the field of bridging African traditional music with other music forms, promoting racial understanding among racially divided groups in South Africa under difficult apartheid conditions, working for a non-racial society and being an outstanding spokesperson for the release of political prisoners”.

But like most geniuses, Clegg didn’t seem to quite get it, that is why he of all people would be considered for such an honour. He was just a man who did what needed to be done. But he was excited anyway. The order was to be bestowed on him on Freedom Day by President Jacob Zuma, a deeply, proud traditional Zulu man.

So I asked Clegg if he would dress up in ibheshu, traditional Zulu gear when he went to collect his award. His answer was a quick, emphatic no. He reasoned that it would be disrespectful to the Zulu culture because he felt being a Zulu was more than just dressing up in animal skins. In fact, he argued that he was more than just a Zulu – he was a South African.

I found this quite profound and wondered if SA wouldn’t be a better place had whites learnt to judge humans on the content of their character rather than the colour of the dark colour of their skin like Clegg?

He is one of those few people we can truly claim, died for this land, South Africa. His legacy, the music he left us and future generations says as much. He advocated for equal rights, embracing cultural diversity and spiritualism without prejudice.

He is in that league of conscientious objectors like James Phillips who through their music not only questioned white South Africa’s support for and belief in apartheid, but educated others about its evil.

Phillips, from the verkrampte East Rand town of Springs sang about the horrors of apartheid violence in black townships at a time when most white South Africans were rallying behind the National Party, convinced by its propaganda of an impending onslaught against whites by blacks.

It may sound romantic now – but back then it must have taken a lot of courage for the likes of Phillips, Clegg and to a large extent PJ Powers to embrace the other side. Such was Clegg and Powers stature in the black community they were regularly booked to perform at memorable football cup finals.

One of Clegg’s memorable performances was during the Mainstay Cup final at Ellis Park in 1984, a year in which the country’s townships were burning as opposition to apartheid gained momentum. The match featured SA’s biggest football clubs and rivals Iwisa Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. In a stadium packed to capacity with 90 000 fans, 99.9% crowd of them mainly black fans, he stole the show. His lively piece, Ibhola Lethu was even made the official Mainstay Cup final song.

The Mainstay Cup was then the equivalent of the FA Cup in England. Throughout the 80s and early 90s he was a regular feature at events such as the popular season opener the Iwisa Soccer Spectacular, an all-day football festival featuring four teams voted in by fans from across the country.

In the 1970s, at a time when most of white South Africa were building fences and walls between itself and the black majority, Clegg went over to the other side and started building bridges.

He went out in search of the spirit of the great heart of this great continent. And he sang about this journey so beautifully, with such emotion and love. In 2012, he told me in an interview for the City Press that all he ever wanted to do then was play music. But there was this resistance, these barriers put in his way by the system and his fellow white people in the suburbs of Jo’burg. But he didn’t care, even though he got into a lot of trouble in pursuit of this music that allowed him to be free.

“I just wanted to play music. That’s all I wanted to do. But the white people could never understand why I wanted to spend time with black people. To them it was always something criminal, they thought it was about dagga, they never thought these were just normal people. But I went anyway, I wanted to play.”

Clegg was one of the best lyricists of his generation, he was a poet who painted stories with words and accompanied these with beautiful cross over rhythms drawing from the Zulu and European styles.

In the song ‘Great Heart’ from the 1987 album Third World he sings about the strange behaviour that haunted the world then – perhaps even now and in the future:

The world is full of strange behaviour

Every man has to be his own saviour

I know I can make it on my own if I try

But I’m searching for a great heart to stand me by

Underneath the African sky

A great heart to stand me by…

Clegg was very much his own saviour from the trappings of racial prejudice and segregation enforced with an iron fist by the authorities. Had he succumbed to the threats and negative attitudes from his own people

Although he and his music were loved by many black people, there were those who despised him on the grounds that he had taken advantage of an ignorant rural iZulu man in bandmate Sipho Mchunu to gain fame and make money for himself. Mchunu who met Clegg in 1968, taught him to play the guitar the Zulu way.

They later formed the duo Juluka whose first recording Woza Friday catapulted them to national stardom but put them at odds with the authorities. Mchunu who toured with Clegg quit the music scene in the mid-1980s and returned home to Kranskop in northern KwaZulu-Natal to farm. They have remained friends for life.

Mchunu told Radio 702 in the wake of Clegg’s passing, that he was a gift from God and was more than just a friend, he was a brother.

He’s gone now but his music and lessons he taught through it remain. It’s up to those who remain to decide what to do with it. Fare thee well, scatterling of Africa! – Mukurukuru Media

This article first appeared in Vrye Weekblad.

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