Johnny Clegg described himself as a “cultural activist” and believed in non-racialism, but never a “kumbaya” version it, writes Glenn Bownes.
Johnny Clegg has travelled with me for 40 of my 52 years in this “cruel, crazy beautiful world”.
In 1979, when I was 12, my father brought home Juluka’s debut album Universal Men. My young heart and head were blown away. Soon, their next three albums – African Litany, Scatterlings and Work For All – came home with my dad, who had also fallen hard for the “White Zulu”.
And so began a life-long love affair with Clegg and his bands. As a young boy, I could sing all the Juluka songs in “fluent” phonetic Zulu, most of the time only understanding tiny snippets of what I was singing, but belting out songs like Deliwe, Unkosibomvu, Jwanisbeki with a passion nonetheless. Of course many of his songs were in English as well, and I would sing these too, at the top of my voice in my bedroom or the bath where I would hide for hours with my tape recorder. Songs like Scatterlings of Africa, December African Rain, Two Humans on the Run, Work For All, and so many more.
A 17-year-old Clegg formed Juluka with Sipho Mchunu in 1969 and Universal Men was released 10 years later. The song Africa became the first No 1 hit on Capital 604 Radio which had launched in December 1979, and was broadcast from the then “independent” bantustan of Transkei. The SABC was not a big fan of Juluka, so Radio 604 and Radio 702, broadcast from the Boputhatswana, were the best places to catch the tunes disapproved of by the apartheid regime.
In 1985, Juluka disbanded when Mchunu returned to farming and Clegg formed Savuka with percussionist Dudu Zulu. Savuka went on to gain even more international acclaim than Juluka. Zulu was killed in 1992 while trying to mediate between rival taxi groupings in KwaZulu-Natal. Clegg wrote The Crossing as a tribute to his friend and musical collaborator.
Probably Savuka’s most iconic song is the goosebump-inducing Asimbonanga, from the 1987 Third World Child album. The song about the jailed Nelson Mandela – loosely translated as “We have not seen him”, because of the ban on the publication of his words and image – also referred to other victims of the apartheid regime, like Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge and Neil Aggett.
Asimbonanga was covered by a number of artists, from US folk singer Joan Baez to the Soweto Gospel Choir. Baez’s version, arranged by legendary South African composer Caiphus Semenya, was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Clegg, who described himself as a “cultural activist”, never shied away from criticising the racist government of the day and was involved in the anti-apartheid movement through the United Democratic Front.
On receiving the Officer Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2015 from Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to music, upliftment and the fight against apartheid, Clegg was quoted in the Maritzburg Sun as saying: “A lot of our music was banned on the air and we had a lot of difficult times with authorities closing down our shows.
“So, I became a cultural activist in the 80s. I became involved with the United Democratic Front and many of the sub-organisations, doing a lot of charities for various causes. Whether it was the End Conscription Campaign or fighting against the forced removals of rural populations.”
Clegg was also awarded the Knight of Arts and Letters by the French government in 1991, as well as the Order of Ikhamanga from the South African government in 2012.
He was a strong believer in the non-racialism espoused the mass democratic movement, encapsulated internally by the UDF and externally by the ANC in exile.
But it was never a “kumbaya” version of non-racialism. Herman Wasserman sums this up very well in a tweet honouring Clegg: “While widely celebrated for ‘crossover’ music, theirs was much more than quaint rainbowism. Work for All, Bullets for Bafazane and Mdantsane spoke of the horrors of the mines, ‘homelands’ and the townships. And, of course, Asimbonanga, the anthem for a future president.”
I can’t imagine anyone remaining dry-eyed while watching the video of Clegg’s 1999 performance of Asimbonanga in Frankfurt. Half way through the song, Mandela came on stage and did his famous Madiba shuffle, while a clearly emotional Clegg sang on.
At the end of the song, Mandela addresses the crowd, saying: “It’s music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world.” He then “berates” them that they are not moving enough and instructs Clegg and the crowd to sing and move to the chorus again. Needless to say, they do.
In a 2018 interview, Clegg told Channel24’s Alex Isaacs that he was writing his autobiography.
We can only hope that he was able to complete it before he left us.
Ngiyabonga, Johnny. And thank you, dad, for the introduction.
– Bownes is the chief sub-editor at News24.