South Africa


The Astounding Journey of a White Zulu Rocker

Renowned South African singer Johnny Clegg celebrates his 30 years as a musician - with the bands Juluka and Savuka and later as a solo act - in a concert in Johannesburg, South Africa on 6 November 2010. (Photo by Gallo Images/Sunday World/Tsheko Kabasia)

After a more than four-year-long battle, British-born South African Zulu-rock icon, Johnny Clegg, finally succumbed to pancreatic cancer in July. Family friend for nearly 40 years, Chris du Plessis, reminisces about Johnny’s journey through everything from searching for and becoming a father, to science-fiction films and a Zulu tribal leader called Chief Queen Victoria.

Johannesburg, July 2019

Jonathan Paul Clegg’s lifelong friend and musical ally, Sipho Mchunu, chokes on his words by the grave side as he bids his best friend a final farewell. The he suddenly thrusts his clasped hands out in his frustration to find the words, throws his head skyward and emits a muffled, heart-ripping “Hamba Kahle!” before imploring Johnny not to fear the journey he is poised to embark on.

Do not be afraid to meet your fathers and your peers umfowethu (my friend)”. He addresses Johnny by his clan-name Skeyi – borrowed from the “skei” part of the Afrikaans word jukskei – the wedge that fixes cattle to the “juk” (yoke) or wooden brace that binds them to their load. His friend, Sipho pronounces as a hush envelops the concentrated gathering, has now been freed from his bonds…



Msinga Valley, KwaZulu-Natal, 1983

The massive bank of black thunderclouds amassing over the Msinga valley in South Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal province doesn’t seem to bother Mashiye Dladla as he emerges from the thatched hut in full traditional Zulu warrior raiment.

He glances briefly skyward, shakes some fine powder from a leather pouch onto the palm of his hand, and blows. Inside the hut, the chanting reaches a crescendo as the powder billows into the dank atmosphere.

Satisfied, Mashiye turns and heads back to join his companions, confident that his actions will keep the rain at bay until the day’s events were concluded. As leader of his Indlamu-group, it’s his duty to make sure the weather doesn’t impede on the all-important proceedings.

When the row of warriors eventually emerge from the hut draped in battle regalia, a young Johnny Clegg sports the same amaShoba (cow tails tied around the upper arms and below the knees), izinjobo (long animal skins around the hips) and amaBeshu (calf-skin rear apron) but his pale veneer forms a stark contrast to his brethren of the Chunu clan.

Behind him is Dudu Zulu, a close companion and one of his team’s fiercest combatants. It’s 1983, before Johnny became a household name in South Africa and France, before Zulu threatened to become just another four-letter word, and before Dudu was brutally slaughtered by rival clan factions in nearby Keate’s Drift.

Johnny Clegg on October 25, 2012 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Clegg is preparing for a concert in the city. (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Werner Hills)

In a semi-trancelike state, the line of warriors snake down into the valley to meet their opponents. Similar groupings have been forming among the amaBomvu and amaTembu who share the harsh conditions in Msinga with the amaChunu people.

They have been surviving here since Shaka Zulu herded fellow Nguni clans hostile to the House of Zulu (People of the Sky) to the peripheries of his kingdom. That’s where the trouble began and where it still froths ominously forth. Today will be a battle to remember…

Johannesburg, July 2013

Ever since I was a boy I wanted to be a warrior,” Johnny Clegg states sternly while surveying the captive audience gathered to celebrate his 60th birthday in Johannesburg.

And it seems to have rubbed off on my family. My son Jesse and my wife Jenny are warriors too. They worry all the time. It often ends up with Jesse worrying that Jenny might be worried about something that he’s worried about…”

Johnny comes across focused and relaxed as he stands there snatching anecdotes from his hind-head for the receptive collection of friends and colleagues.

It’s a unique occasion in more ways than one – the first time in many years that anyone has seen Johnny and his counterpoint counterpart, his cadence-compadre, Sipho Mchunu, share a stage. After so many years and ritual sorghum beers, their combined vocal prowess is still apparent. During the sound check that afternoon, staff and management had stood frozen as the singing commenced.

The two voices have danced together so many times, chased one another through the riffs and raised roofs in unison for so long, it’s virtually impossible to distinguish one from the other as they negotiate the ancient Zulu ballads about women, war and cattle-culture. Sipho & Garfunkel; Simon & Clegg. When the harmonies mesh, it becomes a single timeless South African anthem.

Only a few hours before things were happening somewhat faster.

I feel like a foreign person in a foreign country,” Johnny had muttered speeding between last-minute errands in his navy blue kombi-bus. “This land of 60 years old is uncharted turf to me.”

It had to be, I mused, still manically buzzing about like he was 20 years old.

On a normal day, Johnny would at least have had Baf’s help with all the driving around. But not much in Johnny’s life has ever really been normal, and his trusted cutman for the past three decades, Baf, or Bafazane, had recently been incapacitated. Subject of the bass-driven Juluka ditty Bullets for Bafazane, the apparently indestructible Baf had been shot for the fifth time the previous week. Only this time, unlike the other occasions, it was an own goal. As he bent down for his wallet at the petrol station, he triggered his weapon and shot himself through the leg.

You know,” Johnny says, swivelling to steer into a side-road while slapping his hand down on the dashboard to stop the umhupe (traditional Zulu mouth-bow he’d hastily cobbled together that afternoon from string and sticks for the evening’s proceedings) from sliding any further towards the open car window, “Life is a constant balancing act between security and meaning…”

Before he can elaborate, an unearthly ring bursts from his cellphone. It’s a personal message from the then South African state president Jacob Zuma (in the days before he was so widely discredited by the State Capture scandal) with a lengthy apology stating why he regretfully won’t make it to the party that night. Johnny unaffectedly clicks off from the obligatory invite and latches back onto the train of thought.

Johnny Clegg during the Red Bull X-Fighters on September 12, 2015 at the Union Buildings in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Beeld / Deaan Vivier)

It’s a desire for structure against the rage for chaos. Too much security, and you wither and die. Too much searching for meaning without finding answers can kill you as well. But we only achieve meaning by destroying structure…”

The untimely exercise in philosophical deconstruction is classic Clegg. The thought-rush could have been triggered by anything: a sudden mental snapshot of Bafazane’s ordeal, a biker thundering past, a weathered pigeon settling on the roof of one of the suburban mansions flitting by… His mother was probably subjected to a deconstruction of the event the first time Johnny fell from his cot.

With such precipitous lapses into deep thought, he morphs instantly into the hunched academic, the analytical intellectual – a guise as comfortable to him as the more popular public persona: Johnny Clegg – the musical trendsetter, the prancing foot-stomper, the robust human rights campaigner, the bouncing bundle of renegade energy…

In the past four decades, Johnny and his groups Juluka and later Savuka have sold over five million records worldwide and released two-dozen LPs/CDs. He has received the Presidential Ikhamanga Award – the highest honour that can be bestowed on a South Africa citizen – was anointed a Knight (of Arts and Letters) by the French government and has now been listed as recipient of an OBE (Officer of the Order of the British Empire). He’s right up there where most contenders wish to be seen in the African/World Music constellation.

But the episodes of sometimes morose contemplation and insistence on addressing life’s murkiness with more zest than most refreshingly places Johnny Clegg apart from the average glamour-seeking pop-star or garden variety rock-twit – for better or for worse.

And Johnny Clegg is no stranger to worse. Through the same passage of time, he’s had to battle the prejudices of apartheid, wade through the complex quagmire of the cultural boycott, falter and find his feet again in the cutthroat confines of the international business world, lose and regain a father, bury some of his closest companions (either gunned down in Msinga’s inter-tribal skirmishes or assassinated by apartheid’s secret police), pick up the pieces after Juluka’s sudden demise at the band’s peak, and endure the rejection of Zulu culture – the fundamental source of his creative output – that accompanied the widespread condemnation of Inkhata during the 1980s.

Jonathan Clegg first saw the light of day in the small hamlet of Rochdale, England, some 66 years ago. His dad, Dennis, had been enlisted in the RAF and stationed at a base in Gwelo (now Gwero) in the old Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where he met Johnny’s mother Muriel, whose parents were farming in the district.

(Her eyes still glaze over when she conjures up their courtship: “Dogs loved him,” she remembered fondly during a visit one morning to her well-appointed chambers at a Johannesburg home for the elderly. “He always used to pick up the strays on the way to my house like the Pied Piper.”)

When his tenure was over, Dennis returned to his hometown and invited Muriel to join him there and, on her visit to the UK some time later, the romance was rekindled and Johnny was conceived.

But the low skies and more restrained British ways soon made a naturally gregarious Muriel miserable enough to start longing for home. Without telling her mother, Muriel’s dad flew over to Rochdale to fetch his daughter, and after some “delicate negotiations”, returned to Zambia with both her and the six-month old boy…

Msinga Valley, KwaZulu-Natal, 1983

As the lines of warriors from the different clans coil through the brush towards the battle field, Dennis Clegg, on his first ever visit to Africa, offers me his version of events seated in a natural Jacuzzi formed by a confluence of streams and rocks in the Mooi (pretty) River: “It seemed like Johnny’s mom took him on a holiday when he was six months old, and never came back,” he says with a wry smile. “But if he’d stayed with me he probably would have ended up a school teacher or an accountant.”

It was only after Juluka’s success decades later that Johnny had the means to go and search for his father. In Zulu culture, as Johnny explains, you are connected to your ancestors through your male line and a son is naturally drawn to “find” his father – or as the Zulu saying goes: “enter the kraal where the cattle of his father bellows”.

When he eventually did trace Dennis to Rochdale, it was a bittersweet experience.

Even though I had been looking forward to the moment my entire life, I was the last one off the plane,” he recalls. “The reality of it suddenly dawned on me and all the obvious questions came up. Who is this person? What would he look like? How would he react to me?”

In his search for a father figure as a boy, Johnny had immersed himself in Zulu culture and found a substitute in the collective subliminal force and energy of Zulu masculinity.

These men were physically coded, and psychically primed to exude a gender-exclusive energy they could all draw from,” he explains.

It is because they share ubukunzi – or bull-spirit. And like the bull, it is a rogue, fiercely independent, even stubborn force all men must first strive to find in themselves and then learn to control correctly.

If the ubukunzi is harnessed properly so that it can be made to work in harmony with the rest of the community, that individual can achieve the status of iqawe (regimental leader) or even inDuna (chief). If not, he will be shinga – a renegade, possibly destructive element. But it is often also the shinga who make the best warriors, artists, poets and dancers…

Today in Msinga, ubukunzi is represented in all its glory as the voice of Johnny’s father in the natural Jacuzzi is drowned out by thundering drums echoing down the valley.

When the warriors reach the field where the contest is to take place, the ululating, cheers and war chants reach a climax. Each clan forms an individual huddle and, following a tradition born centuries ago, start humming like bees – a sound mimicked and popularised by the Juluka songs and anthems.

And like a cluster of honey-producing drones that should be seen as cells of a larger organism rather than individual workers, the writhing mass of chanting, trancing warriors undulates as a singular heaving entity.

Every now and then an impi (Zulu for “warrior” or “war”) will dislocate from the group and commence a war-dance (or giya) that reflects his personality – crouched and humble, arrogant and haughty… It is the responsibility of the group leader to monitor this process and start bunching compatible combatants together to form a strong advance guard for the battle.

Wielding a whistle and a sjambok, he whips those warriors he deems to be out of sync with his game plan into shape – sometimes grabbing them by the neck and forcing them back into the fray. Somewhere in the amaChunu-huddle, Johnny fights like all the others for a chance to strut his stuff, to prove his worth in his community.

When each group leader has collected a powerful enough contingent of warriors to represent his clan, he aligns them and gives them the go-ahead to prepare their attack in carefully choreographed unison…

Yeoville, Johannesburg, 1962

Before Johnny found a measure of paternal solace in the Zulu culture, the role of a traditional father was played by Dan Pienaar, a crime reporter for the Rand Daily Mail whom his mother married after moving to Johannesburg in the 1960s. His stepfather also happened to be the person who first turned him on to African culture.

Dan was the one who introduced me to the mysteries of the ‘dark continent’,” Johnny explains with air-quotes. “He used to travel north quite a lot and he’d bring back masks from the Congo or Malawi, drums and rattles and all sorts of stuff from his forays into Africa.”

But, coming from a traditional Afrikaans background as he did, Dan was also a strict disciplinarian and Johnny knew from an early age what it was like to be under the strap. Post-mischief, he sought refuge in the back room of a block of flats down the road – the temporary urban home of caretaker Charlie Mzila, who took the boy under his wing. Johnny had met Charlie playing traditional Zulu street guitar music (masikande – a corruption of the Afrikaans word for musician: “musikant”, of late more often referred to as maskandi or maskanda) outside a café in Bellevue near his home. “It was Charlie who opened the door for me,” Johnny explains. “He gave me my first glimpse into that world.”

Charlie taught Johnny the finger-picking rudiments of masikande music on the guitar and the basic steps of the indlamu dance. He first accompanied Johnny into the hidden world of the Zulu migrant labour culture. And he was there when Johnny was given his first traditional Zulu name, Madlebe (Big Ears).

Throughout their lives, Zulu men are given a series of sometimes brutally frank nick-names which serve as a chronology of their personal histories, Johnny would enlighten anyone who cared to listen.

Another of Johnny’s names, Wabaleka No-Chekhasi – The Boy Who Ran Away With The Checkers Bag – was in reference to his first encounter with a traditional Indlamu dance group at a migrant Zulu hostel he had visited with Charlie. “You feel them before you see them,” he explained to me during an interview for the Cape Times in the mid-1980’s. “The ground reverberates underfoot.”

As they waited for the troupe to approach, another group suddenly appeared and a fierce fight broke out between the two factions. The cracking knobkieries and fighting sticks, spray of blood and ensuing mayhem was too much for the youth who had never been subjected to a violent clash between rival Zulus before. He took off with his Checkers shopping bag holding his mbatata (Zulu sandals crafted from old white-wall tires) to the opposite side of the road.

In the following years, Johnny became increasingly embosomed in the migrant Zulu culture, earning his subsequent names as pivotal events in his life unfolded – such as getting whipped to shreds in his first attempts at dlala ‘nduku (stick fighting), and being schlepped back home by the apartheid police for contravening the Group Areas Act after running away at the age of 17 to the Makabaleni Valley in rural Zululand – home of his lifelong friend and Juluka partner Sipho Mchunu.

However unflattering some of the Zulu monikers might be, they are all considered “praise-names’’, according to Johnny, and it’s these personal titles that the community calls out during a young boy’s giya.

There are several rites of passage before a Zulu boy can attain the rank of fully-fledged impi. The first one is Iphape – a reference to the sausage made from a cow’s lung. Threaded onto a stick and warmed on hot rocks, it is a delicacy and prize for boys as young as five who are taught the discipline of stick-fighting in their quest to find and formulate their ubukunzi.

When they are about to come of age as amaBungu (young warriors) they must perform a giya in front of the whole community. The giya is a solo performance with the shield (isoliHauw) and sticks (isquili for the attack and uboko for defence) – a sort of shadow-boxing bout against an imaginary opponent (or alter-ego) if you will. But it is also a statement of the young warrior’s status as a member of the community. During the giya the community will challenge this claim to be accepted as a man in its midst by taunting him and chanting his list of nick-names and he will either rise to the occasion or not.

Johnny’s last traditional name, the one that stuck, is Skeyi – a Zulu adoption of the Afrikaans word jukskei, the implement used to harness the vooros (leading ox). It refers to him as a leading figure in the Chunu clan, one who pulls the community together.

And it is a community that needs some pulling together…

Msinga Valley, KwaZulu-Natal, 1820-1940

Conflict between the clans in the Msinga valley has been prevalent in some form or the other since the days of King Shaka, Johnny elucidates as we bump along a dirt path near Dudu’s homestead at Tugela Ferry. As the founder of the greater Zulu empire nudged the various Nguni factions to the peripheries of his domain, tension increased between the clans and the Royal House of Zulu.

So much so that the above-mentioned amaTembe of Msinga twice clashed with Shaka’s forces at the Mzinyathi (Buffalo) River and even later fought on the side of the British against the House of Zulu at the famous Battle of Isandlwana when Lord Chelmsford was humiliated by Cetshwayo – theme of the famous Johnny Clegg anthem Impi.

As the decentralised Nguni clans were herded towards the edges of the white settlements, space became a problem. Not only because adequate grazing was at stake, but because the ability of a Zulu chieftain to cede land to neighbouring chiefs – or “khoNza” as this action is known – forms the foundation of his power. The more this right was impeded by the lack of space, the more the faction fighting among adjacent clans increased.

Then, at the beginning of the previous century, a plan was forged by some of the Msinga factions to introduce members of the Royal House of Zulu to the valley. These settlers that were meant to placate the original inhabitants and take command of the district became known as “Uthuli lwama Zulu” – the Zulu Dust. But rather than the problems being solved, things got worse – until the friction reached a zenith in the first few decades of the 20th century.

Respite came in the form of a local chief of considerable foresight who called a halt to the violence in the early 1940s. Enamoured with the British monarchy, he named himself Chief Queen Victoria – by no means a flippant, or laughable, moniker in that neck of the woods where a mere smirk at the wrong moment can cost you your life.

He was first to come up with the concept of a dance competition to appease the feuding tribal factions in Msinga. “Let’s stop the killing,” he pronounced. “Instead of continuing to fight like this amongst ourselves, we’ll dance against each other.”

Extracting elements from the traditional Zulu war-dance, the Indlamu contains all the physical components that simulate battle: The war cry, the sudden advance, the emphasised foot stomping to symbolise a blow struck against the enemy, the raised right hand at the onset representing a poised spear with the left hand supporting the imaginary shield. The dancers falling back onto their backsides, so popular with audiences of Juluka and Savuka, was a diplomatic gesture incorporated in the choreography which could indicate either defeat or victory.

But whatever the symbolic significance, the paradoxical introduction of a war dance for peace miraculously helped create tranquility among the warring factions in Msinga. At least all the way up until 1975, when Chief Queen Victoria died and the search ensued for a successor, with all its bloody consequences…

Johannesburg, 1982

So-called “crossover” music didn’t really exist in South Africa until Johnny Clegg emerged from the local South African musical fold in the late 1970s with Juluka (“Sweat” in the vernacular).

Attempts at blending indigenous African and western styles had produced countless gems over the years among sichatamiya, masikande, African jazz, pennywhistle jive (later more popularly known as kwela) and mbaqanga repertoires, but nothing catered to the tastes of the middle-class urban hipster and the average township dweller in equal proportions.

Solo efforts by the likes of local fusion jazzman Steve Eliovson and southern African folkies such as Tony Bird, Edi Niederlander and Paul Clingman (with Johnny and Juluka-collaborator Sipho Mchunu featuring as supporting artists on his sadly unsung masikande/English-folk mixes on albums such as Father to the Child) had also surfaced with varying degrees of success.

But the Clegg/Mchunu blend burst from the prevailing commercial musical mould like Joan Rivers at an Amish Christmas lunch.

June 30, 2017: Johnny Clegg performs in his Final World Tour with Sipho Mchunu at the GrandWest Casino on June 30, 2017 in Cape Town, South Africa. He began the tour after beating his cancer into remission. (Photo by Gallo Images / The Times / Esa Alexander)

At the peak of the group’s popularity, bulky Blue Bulls rugby supporters and their big-haired blondes were chanting “Impi” around braai fires from Groblersdal to Garsfontein, while shebeen-patrons in urban South Africa celebrated the end of another working week to the refrain of Woza Friday (Come Friday) and other foot-tapping tunes from Zulu-pop albums such as Ubuhle Bemvelo.

It was all very different with an abnormally big D.

Here was a non-black boy introducing an “arcane” slice of musical heritage from the hidden depths of “the Dark Continent” in a format fathomable to white South Africa.

A common reaction among white audiences to Juluka’s debut album was how amazingly “familiar” it sounded. This was because nearly every single suburban South African Baby Boomer had been subjected to such tunes on a daily basis since birth.

And somehow Clegg had managed to dredge up and package all those jangling, intricately interwoven melodies etched onto the collective subconscious of suburban South Africa by domestic servants listening to the apartheid government-controlled Radio Bantu as they Cobra-waxed the master and miesies’ voorstoep floors.

And here was the result, in English – neatly wrapped with a background of the Zulu culture offered with the passionate, comprehensive and humorous sensibilities of a young anthropology lecturer in his prime. For much of the South African privileged class, it was their first really insightful and safe glimpse into that other world across the (Mvubu) River.

The Juluka concerts were legendary. Especially in selected venues such as Cape Town’s Good Hope Centre – the results of which were eventually compiled in a highly successful album in 1986. Long before South Africans were subjected to the forced Castle beer ads and other awkward Rainbow Nation vignettes clumsily portraying white and black citizens gathered in social harmony, the group managed to unify South Africans physically, socially in a way we had never experienced before. And however embarrassing it was to finally discover that white men can’t dance, no one up until that point had ever managed to get them out of their seats to prove it so willingly.



Admittedly the timing was perfect – with so many regular South Africans yearning for some sort of cultural reconciliation and the juggernaut of dissent and opposition to separate development barreling towards its logical conclusion.

But Juluka was the first collective to really allow South Africans – and everybody else who cared to listen – an indulgence of the exquisite fantasy of multicultural harmony. On and off-stage, Sipho Mchunu (who co-incidentally also grew up without his father) and Johnny Clegg, were Ebony and Ivory personified – sans the agonisingly sentimental trimmings espoused by the likes of Lionel Ritchie or Paul McCartney.

In 1983 I was sent across the road to the Capetonian Hotel from the Nasionale Pers (National Press – South Africa’s largest publishing house) building on the Heerengracht on Cape Town’s foreshore for my first interview with Johnny Clegg. Although fast gaining popular ground with his first five albums (despite his efforts being banned from airplay by the apartheid-informed SABC) he appeared slightly bewildered by the world, in equal measures enthusiastic and curious. But there was also an obvious undercurrent of unease and impatience. He seemed permanently coiled to fight the good fight – of which there were many developing in his homeland at that point in time.

I went in after lunch and left many hours later at dusk. He was apologetic seeing me off at the door: “Sorry, but when you push a button and get me started… I find it difficult to stop.” A prolific reader and unbridled consumer of current affairs, he’d covered everything in rapid succession from the emerging digital age to Egyptian mythology and I was left fingering two complimentary tickets for the Cape Town gig and wondering how to make sense of it all in a half-page feature. But during the interlude, I had been offered a glimpse into a few pertinent personality traits – among others a keen sense of observational humour which only sometimes surfaced unintentionally:

On the dogged insistence by an acquaintance to meet Johnny years later, I finally consented. The man had once been one of South Africa’s top advertising executives and had emigrated to Canada with his family only to fall victim to chronic depression. On his return to South Africa, apparently cured of everything except alopecia, he became a life-skills coach – appearing on TV as an air-punching, positive-thinking activist sporting a black T-shirt emblazoned with a large white “YES!”

I introduced the two of them at the gym.

How did the meeting go,” I asked Johnny after the fact.

I don’t know,” he replied resignedly, “I found it very hard to concentrate on what he was saying with each little hair left standing on his head trying to make an individual statement like that.”

Other anecdotes highlight a generosity sometimes driven to a point of folly. And sometimes simply to a point of average tear-jerking largesse: After having lost track of his first mentor in the Zulu community, Johnny went searching for Charlie Mzila once he had the means to do so after Juluka’s success and found him in a migrant worker hostel near Vosloorus township in Ekhuruleni. When he saw his old friend living in abject poverty, he afforded him the financial means to set himself and his family up comfortably for the rest of their lives.

Johnny Clegg performs at the tribute concert to Madiba on December 11, 2013 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Lulama Zenzile)

This all went hand in hand with an old-school sense of loyalty and conviction to do the right thing: On the way to a New Year’s party during the early 1990s one vehicle in our entourage unwittingly knocked over a dog and carried on driving.

Johnny elected to spend the final minutes of that year knocking on doors in Johannesburg’s high-end suburb of Houghton to find its owner in a probable conjuncture of Pythonesque proportions:

Who is it, dear?”

Johnny Clegg with a dead Cocker Spaniel.”

Of course my love.” (Stifled snigger before conspiratorial aside to equally inebriated buddy: “Thank the gods she only mixes tequila and egg-nog once a year.”)

By no means a boy scout, he still remained squeaky clean by music industry standards. Soundly married for three decades and relatively booze and drug free (the odd toke or tipple is expected in some rural social rituals), it would have been easier to envision Donald Trump consulting the Dalai Lama than to imagine Johnny as a victim of some social scandal.

Many people were caught off-guard at his lack of pretension and absence of social airs and he remained thoroughly unimpressed by celebrity, particularly his own. (“Very nice people,” was his description of Trudy and Sting, and “she seems all right, but I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” he shrugged after meeting Sharon Stone at the height of her up-skirt fame.)

If it wasn’t for his spouse Jenny’s acute fashion sense, he’d probably have been absentmindedly wandering into meetings with a propeller-topped baseball cap. (The unbreakable, behind-the-scenes backbone of the Clegg clan, she is the only person Johnny would ever really back down to and without her, he would have been permanently keyless and probably regularly in London for his Tokyo gigs.)

His slight social awkwardness stood in direct contrast to the focused, self-assured, no-nonsense negotiator in his natural habitats: the recording studio, the stage, the tour bus or the lecture hall. A naturally trusting nature however led him into a number of skirmishes on the outskirts of his regular turf, subjecting him to some bruising in the business world for instance.

But such events merely serve to bring out the warrior in Johnny, according to Jenny.

He just never gives up no matter how hard things get,” she says in reference to her husband’s brushes with big business as much as his valiant fight to conquer the cancer. (Johnny embarked on a final world tour after the diagnosis and is one of a very small percentage of people on earth who have survived nearly five years with the ailment. The average prognosis is but a few months.)

Msinga Valley, KwaZulu-Natal, 1983

On the field of contest, people can be seen milling about excitedly. Every social grouping can be clearly distinguished by their divergent traditional dress. The bare-breasted amaTshitshi (unmarried virgins), the purple-robed Xgisa (unmarried, non-virgins) and the married women, with their broad red circular headgear (isicholo).

Men perk up and women coyly avert their gazes as the massive frame of the Chunu Iqawe (regimental leader), Mkhize, struts into frame. He is a legendary stick-fighter, unbeatable in the entire Isifunda (district). The chants, hums and whistles can barely be heard over the din of the war drums.

Some of this humming and chanting by the various clans would have been eerily familiar to the ancestors of both Afrikaner pioneers and the British troops stationed here in the 1800s. It is what Boer leaders such as Piet Retief were subjected to at the Ncome River (aka Blood River) before dawn broke with the war cry: Bulalani Abathakathi (kill those who use medicine to kill others). Even today, the initial advance of the dancers is preceded by the cry: “Bulala Zonke!” (Kill them all).

The dance occurs only on one day of the year, Boxing Day. Like most other communities in rural KwazuluNatal, the Msinga clans consist of mainly women, children and elder folk for 11 months of the year. In December the migrant workers, traditionally predominantly mine labourers, trek home for the December break.

At dawn on the morning of the dance, an ox is slain by thumping a short knife into its shoulder. The longer it struggles to stay alive, paints the sky with crimson squirts of blood, the better. It is indicative of the strength of the community. Then the beast is chopped into pieces and the hefty slabs of meat are rolled in heaps of coarse salt and thrown onto the open fire for the pending feast.

Johannesburg 1988

There was a time,” Johnny Clegg says with a reminiscing smile, “that if the apartheid security forces had to happen upon my house at any given moment, they would have made the biggest score of their career.”

He’s referring to the mid to late 1980s when the National Party security apparatus was functioning at its sordid, psychotic best and he found himself in the middle of a storm. ANC cadres in KwaZulu-Natal were engaged in a full-scale street war with the traditionalist Zulu Inkatha forces and suddenly many of his close friends and associates in the Zulu community were forced into opposing camps of the ever-widening divide. Brother against brother.

Caught in the middle of this schism, Johnny’s diplomatic skills, fluent command of the Zulu language, and grasp of the intricate sensitivities of grassroots politics, kept him in high demand as negotiator and led to his hosting regular illegal gatherings for the ANC street committee leaders at his home in Kensington, Johannesburg. It was a highly precarious tightrope act.

And to add to the disarray was the quagmire of the so-called cultural boycott.

The trade boycott was effective because of its simplicity. But there had been a massive surge in localised agitprop theatre, dissident fine art and protest music during this time and many South Africans thought a blanket boycott on cultural activities to be counterproductive to “the Struggle”.

Dissected and analysed to a point of ridicule, the debate became a particularly hot issue and Johnny and Juluka were drawn into the centre of the increasingly farcical fray.

While the FAK (Federation of Afrikaans Arts) and the Afrikaner Volkswag (the radical right wing’s cultural branch) were organising conflicting events to celebrate the anniversary of the Great Trek, the formerly cohesive mass democratic cultural thrust was splintering off into opposing moderate and radical factions – each with their own agenda and insistence on a voice. In the mounting militant environment, dubious terms such as “cultural guerilla” and “musical liberators” started cropping up.

Talk of a so-called “selective cultural boycott” to replace the blanket boycott soon surfaced and the United Nations Symposium on Culture Against Apartheid held in Athens in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture (hosted by Greek Culture Minister Melina Mercouri and attended by high-profile members of the international cultural-artistic community) was specifically geared towards placing initiatives for the boycott in the hands of the artists instead of the ideologues.

According to Clegg, an active participant in the symposium, the forum recognised that “there is a culture of the oppressed flourishing in South Africa and that progressive cultural activities should not only not be isolated, but supported at all costs”.

It was agreed that this was only possible if artists as individuals would be accountable to larger cultural organisations with progressive constitutions who would in turn report to international anti-apartheid movements. In other words, they should join a vast hierarchical network of artistic accountability.

This naturally made the South African anti-apartheid movements a little nervous.

They were rightfully worried about how progressive cultural movements were supposed to be identified and who would be doing the identifying,” Clegg explains.

The danger was obvious: prescriptive artistic expression, and ultimately censorship. Again artists were caught between a rock and hard place. They couldn’t express themselves freely for fear of persecution, and if they didn’t express themselves strongly enough, their natural progress would be hampered by the democratic thrust.

Though artists cannot isolate themselves completely – you are either part of the South African community or you are not – freedom of expression and freedom of association is imperative to an artist’s growth,” Clegg explained at the time. “We might play on a progressive platform to raise money for detainees, even fight for the right to do that. But we will not be dictated to.”

One of the results of all this head-butting was Johnny’s inception of SAMA (South African Music Association) which sought to address the general South African musicians’ alienation from the grassroots political realities in the townships where violent clashes between performers and the people had started to escalate.

After the State of Emergency was declared in 1986 a series of concerts from Durban to Secunda were interrupted by militants and activists who stole and/or set alight equipment and stoned high-profile progressive musicians such as Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse.

Suddenly every Tom, Duduzile and Harry with an uncle in self-imposed exile was telling South African musicians when, where and how they should be plying their trade.

In the midst of all this Johnny is expelled from the BMU (British Music Union) and misses an opportunity to perform at the milestone Nelson Mandela Concert for Peace in London when organisers claim they never received a letter of consent from Winnie Mandela…

Msinga Valley, KwaZulu-Natal, 1983

As Johnny bursts from his dance group’s huddle and commences his routine, he casts a glance at his longtime friend and dance-partner Dudu Mntowaziwayo Zulu.

Sinewy but strong with uncanny muscular control and flexibility, Dudu was a dancer of great esteem and had become an integral part of the Juluka stage act. When the on-stage foot stomping started in earnest, it was often hard to distinguish which of the cheering female fans were directing their ardour at the vigorous spectacle as a whole, and which were focusing their affections and sexual appetence specifically at the handsome young Zulu.

But now, as Johnny steps out in front of the crowds in rural Msinga, he has no idea that in the next few years, regional battles for power would flare up once more and threaten the future of the dance and the stability of the Keate’s Drift communities.

Before Chief Queen Victoria’s death, there had been two possible successors, a Chunu dancer called Nxele, and a Zulu clansman, Thibanisi (Tea-and-Buns). When the Chief fingered Thibanisi as “Number One”, there were many in the valley that didn’t like the idea.

Even before this, the age-old dissent in the district had been exacerbated by the fact that Johnny, who had been dancing with a Chunu man, Mvovo, and his group, changed allegiance and started to partner with Dudu – a remnant of the Zulu “dust”. With the fires of ancient feuds being fuelled once more, serious inter-clan clashes broke out among the dance groups representing the amaChunu and amaZulu.

It was Dudu who had helped Johnny rechoreograph the Indlamu when the chief died in 1975 and the dispute over who should succeed him amplified to mounting tension in Msinga. They called it Wonke Wonke – All for All – an open invitation to everyone to join.

And as he dances now, Johnny is also blissfully unaware that in May 1992, after having shared stages with him across the music-loving universe, Dudu would die in a barrage of bullets near his homestead in Keate’s Drift – shot in the back with an AK47.

His killing would be the result of a decade-long taxi war raging in his district – a conflict which could also be seen as an extension of the old inter-tribal discord that enveloped Msinga. (It was thought that Dudu and Johnny, as a respected leaders in the community, could help bring resolution to the tension – but not even they could arrest the snowballing chaos.).

Johnny was devastated. He had been subjected to gunfights in the valley before, but it had never cut this close the bone. Dudu’s homestead on the Mooiriver, where Dennis Clegg and I had been bathing that morning, was home to Johnny as well, Dudu’s family, his own. Years later the ballad Osiyeza (The Crossing) would be dedicated to Dudu Mntowaziwayo Zulu.

But Johnny is unaware of all this as he dominates the moment. The crowd cheers as he falls back onto his backside – the all-important diplomatic gesture in the choreography – and disappears in the whorls of swirling dust…

Johannesburg, 2012

The description of Harrison Ford hanging from a rooftop a few seconds before falling to his death is vivid enough to make the audience of three perk up like meerkat. It is the scene where Ford, as Blade Runner Rick Deckhard, is attacked by the replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) in the 1982 neo-noir cult classic, and Johnny Clegg is sketching the clip to the scant following – before launching into a detailed breakdown of the philosophy behind Phillip K. Dicks’ science-fiction.

That scene,” Johnny tells his two sons, Jesse and Jaron and myself, “is a pivotal point in the story,” and proceeds to explain how much of the more poignant secrets of the universe are contained in the film. At times the flickering fire accentuates his passion to a point of high drama.

All present are seated on thick chunks of sawn-off tree-trunks dotted around the blaze. Both boys stare pensively into the flames while their dad holds forth. I expect a groan, a stifled sneer perhaps, some indication of adolescent scepticism, but there is none.

They must have heard this before, but they know there’s always another angle when dad gets going. And he’s quite obviously on a roll tonight as he dissects the dystopian tale’s primary themes of mortality, hubris and the role of memory on affect.

And then, as if on cue, the boys start challenging the postulations and premises presented to them. During the subsequent discourse, lines are drawn and connections made of Ridley Scott’s pre-cyberpunk opus between everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to biblical allusions to the Great Flood. At times the to-and-fro is robust enough to place Johnny in defensive mode – a rare position in which usually only Jenny has the privilege of placing him. (“She has the best bullshit radar I’ve ever come across,” Johnny liked to say.)

Jesse, now a chart-topping musician in his own right edging into the US market, shows a keen interest in everything, much like his father. But the subject matter is right up his younger brother Jaron’s alley, an ardent science-fiction adherent who studied computer animation in Vancouver and LA and is rapidly making a name as director. I get left hopelessly behind somewhere between the moral implications of genetic engineering and the influences of modern technology on the environment.

Apart from the vehement verbal jousting, it is as common an image of interactive storytelling as could be found anywhere in Africa – and as it has occurred over millennia. Only the backdrop reveals us to be in the very heart of Johannesburg’s suburbia, in the Clegg-household’s back yard, and suddenly the hissing fire seems frightfully out of place as microcosm morphs into macrocosm…

Msinga Valley, KwaZulu-Natal, 1983:

As the dancing reaches zenith, the grumbling sky above the spectacle seems like an echo of the thundering drums below. A single line of dancing impi stretches out across the field as all the clans unite in a cohesive unit. On cue, their feet come down as one between the drumbeats, the throaty chants and the thunderclaps across the low-lying sky. Gradually the massive, multicoloured centipede is obscured by the clouds of dust created by an ever-increasing tempo.

Then it is over. And as it is every year right after the final footfall, the first fat raindrops thud into the dust as if programmed to do so.

To the Zulu people, the downpour is a blessing from the ancestors. The victory feast commences. Large chunks of salted meat are flung randomly into the crowds and the kids all jostle for the handfuls of sweets lobbed into the air. The fermenting smell of sorghum from the buckets-full of umqombothi mingles with other prominent pungencies: wood smoke, sweat, cow and goat dung and mud.

Mashiye Dladla, dance-leader of the amaChunu, steps away from his compatriots and lifts his beaming face heavenward. The muti (medicine) has worked, his expression seems to be saying as the water splashes onto his open palms and forehead. It has kept the rain away until the right moment. And peace will prevail – for now.


It’s fitting to say South Africa has lost an exalted cultural icon and social healer and to those to whom Johnny Clegg was a husband, father, son, brother and friend, an unbearable psychic chasm has been left by his passing. But for me there remains solace in the notion that the bull could merely have left the kraal for wider pastures. And that he will be impossible to forget in this world or any other one that might be next. DM

Read also Tony Jackman’s column on the culmination of the week in which Johnny Clegg made his own journey to the ancestors: The Rainbow at the end of the Week of Johnny Clegg.


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