JUDITH FEBRUARY: Johnny Clegg held us all in his embrace
In the hours after his passing as tributes poured in, one started getting a sense of just how loved and admired Johnny Clegg truly was - across the political spectrum and across the world. Not that we didn’t have a sense of it during his lifetime, of course. He was known across continents, recipient of an OBE, Le Zoulou Blanc to the French and so much more.
His music and band went through many iterations from the curious 15-year-old white boy on the streets of Johannesburg who befriended Sipho Mchunu to form the band Juluka in 1978, to recreating it into Savuka in the turbulent 1980s and culminating in his Final Journey tour in January 2018.
There will be much written about Clegg’s significance as an artist, the anthropologist that he was and where he sits in the pantheon of great South African musicians. That will be left to historians and archivists in good time.
To most mourning his loss this morning, it simply feels intensely personal. That is what great artists do - they speak to our soul and they take us on their life journey and accompany us on our own.
In an interview with a Canadian radio station in 2017, Clegg spoke of his battle with pancreatic cancer. He knew his time was limited. He went on to speak of his career, of being arrested as a teenager for hanging around with black migrant workers and how the apartheid police tried and often succeeded in shutting down Juluka concerts. But he said, “We were acting against apartheid but we never used the word apartheid … we did not preach politics to anybody."
Clegg and his band didn’t have to ‘preach politics’ because their message was one which held us all in its embrace with lyrics that have stayed with a generation of South Africans. He didn’t have to mention ‘apartheid’ for his very being was powerfully political - a white man singing maskandi, the music of migrant workers, described as “The music played by the man on the move, the modern minstrel, today’s troubadour. It is the music of the man walking the long miles to court a bride, or to meet with his Chief; a means of transport. It is the music of the man who sings of his real life experiences, his daily joys and sorrows, his observations of the world. It’s the music of the man who’s got the Zulu blues."
Clegg was deeply embedded in Zulu culture, seeking to remind us of who we are and doing the redemptive work which is art’s purpose. While his lyrics spoke to the injustice of apartheid, they were also intrinsically connected to the land and the landscape of Africa. Above all, there was in the pain and complexity also a simple message of joy. How do we not start tapping our feet and feeling our country in our bones when we hear the opening bars of Impi, Great Heart, December African Rain or African Sky Blue? It is impossible.
But while Clegg transcended the expanse of a few decades of fraught South African history, he was also of a particular time. Juluka’s Work for all album with its haunting Bullets for Bafazane speaks directly to the violence gripping our townships during that time.
Shadow men from the outlands come to town
Looking for Bafazane
They want to gun him down -- oh no
They say he thunders too loud and his people are proud
They'll never give in while he's still around
And it's the sky above that he loves
They've got bullets for Bafazane -- They want to gun him down
They've got bullets for Bafazane -- Now they're searching the town
They've got bullets for Bafazane -- And the word's got around
They've got bullets for Bafazane
Juluka didn’t preach politics, just truth.
As Jon Stewart said in his 2009 Kennedy Centre tribute to the legendary Bruce Springsteen, “Bruce doesn’t just sing, he testifies”. The same could be said of Clegg as he sang into the division, pain and heartache of what felt like endless states of emergency and brutality of the late 1980s.
In the lingering brilliance of Asimbonanga (we have not seen him) Clegg and Savuka reimagined Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island (so near, yet so far) but importantly, others we did not see - Steven Biko, Neil Aggett, Victoria Mxenge - at a time when even breathing these names meant transgression. Somehow speaking their names in song became for many a small act of defiance.
Asimbonanga--------------------(we have not seen him)
Asimbonang' umandela thina-----(we have not seen mandela)
Laph'ekhona--------------------(in the place where he is)
Laph'ehleli khona--------------(in the place where he is kept)
“Who has the words to close the distance between you and me?”, the song went on to ask.
Then, many of us knew as we sang along to this haunting melody that our country was in deep trouble, the ‘mutually hurting stalemate’ tearing us apart and the nightly news spewing forth propaganda about ‘terrorists’ and ‘communists’. Clegg was reminding us all that we could not say, “we did not know”. But in these words, there was also the freedom Clegg seemed to display - a glimpse of a new way of being, of seeing our country and of speaking truth to power. This was a South Africa where we could cross the distances because if he could, we all could surely? Simplistic-sounding perhaps, but real because Clegg himself lived his truth.
In the 1999 clip of Asimbonanga, Madiba himself walks onto the stage in Frankfurt and does his customary jive to the music. We had finally seen him and our journey, like Clegg’s, seemed to come full circle in that emotional moment. Watching that again on the same day as we do former President Zuma’s somewhat pathetic Zondo commission testimony was poignant. It speaks to how much we had dreamt of, what we had hoped for and also what we lost along the way. Clegg knew that, but always sought to lurch towards the future as he continued thinking and writing about racial injustice, even in post-apartheid South Africa and until he died.
Johnny Clegg was part of our collective soundtrack. No matter where in the world one finds oneself, the strain of his music provides the unmistakable tug to home for Third World Children and Scatterlings alike.
The beloved country mourns a great musician – he was the very best of us.
African sky blue, your children wait for the dawn
African sky blue, soon a new day will be born
African sky blue
African sky blue, will you bless my life?
Lala kahle, Johnny Clegg, thank you for the memories and for telling our stories.
Judith February based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february