‘We are all islands, till comes the day/
we cross the burning water…’
– Johnny Clegg, ‘Asimbonanga’
How many South Africans could earn an equally effusive tribute from the President, the ANC, the EFF, the DA, and the local and international press upon their death? News of Johnny Clegg’s premature departure from the world prompted an outpouring of grief from across South Africa and around the globe, by those who on any other issue would rarely find themselves in agreement.
The dominant theme in these messages was the remarkable contribution that Clegg made to advancing social cohesion in a non-racial, democratic South Africa.
He did this in the life he led, and the example he set for all who listened to his music. He learned both the Zulu language and the unique style of maskandi guitar from Charlie Nzima, and formed his first musical partnership with Sipho Mchunu to create Juluka. From an early age, his interactions with black musicians and migrant workers drew the attention of the apartheid authorities and led to his detainment by the police.
Living this life was not easy. The boundaries he crossed were drawn by the law, and enforced through ruthless violence and intimidation. More than that, though, they were real social divides – barriers between racial groups that few white South Africans ever attempted to breach. Going there took courage, and required Clegg to reject the comfortable and familiar suburban life that most whites enjoyed.
In these ways, Johnny Clegg provides a model for our own times. For a younger generation of South Africans, although the legal barriers are gone, the social divides remain. Crossing them still requires courage and determination, a conscious departure from the routine.
Racial tensions are perhaps worse now than they have ever been since the end of apartheid in 1994. There are many reasons for this – the failure of the government to correct racial inequality and enact meaningful redress for historical injustices; the increasing weaponisation of racial nationalism by Jacob Zuma in the dying days of his administration; and the rise of social media, which has encouraged the spread of misinformation and toxic discourse online.
In response to the fraying of our social fabric, two extreme approaches have emerged. The first is racial nationalism and essentialism, which holds the fatalistic view that social cohesion is impossible and that the only alternative is further segregation, violence, and conflict over power. The second is “rainbowism”, the naïve belief that racial divisions can be papered over through a process of forgiving and forgetting and by subsuming different cultures into one simplistic overarching narrative.
Rainbowism is extreme because it explicitly rejects the possibility of redress for past injustices, and thereby perpetuates racial inequality. Racial nationalism is extreme because it denies individual dignity in the service of a greater supremacist cause.
Many have suggested, in response to Clegg’s death, that his music itself was a bridge that united South Africa’s racial groups. But this is true only in the most superficial sense. People of all races may have listened to and enjoyed his music, but that commonality alone is not enough to bridge the deep divides that apartheid created.
What Clegg’s life demonstrates instead is that creating bridges requires hard work and sacrifice – that there are no short cuts to social cohesion. Clegg was successful because he spent years, even decades, immersing himself in Zulu language and culture and escaping the confines of white suburbia. He did so from a position of humility and deep respect, and out of a willingness to learn and to listen to others.
This is an alternative to both rainbowism and nationalism, a path between the extremes.
White South Africans have so far demonstrated, however, that they are not willing to follow in Clegg’s footsteps. Few have bothered to learn an indigenous language, and most have maintained their homogeneous social circles with little attempt to reach out to black colleagues, classmates, or neighbours.
Merely listening to a Johnny Clegg album, or flying the South African flag at a cricket match, is not sufficient to build a cohesive post-apartheid South African nation. What is required instead is a deep sense of humility, a commitment to addressing racial inequality, and a willingness to learn and engage.
This is the task of a new generation of white South Africans, who must choose whether to continue to live in a sealed echo chamber – a world apart from the rest of their country – or to build real bridges to a non-racial future.
Johnny Clegg did the latter, and accepted the costs. He recognised that the solution to racial divisions was not to deny their existence, or to dig in one’s heels, but to work actively to create connections with others. He saw that a society is built through our choices – of where to work, where to live, whom to befriend, and how to speak.
His legacy should inspire us to follow suit, and to go beyond lip service in our efforts to achieve social cohesion. DM
"Don't gobblefunk around with words." ~ Roald Dahl