To Johnny Clegg-A Tribute

To Johnny Clegg-A Tribute

I have undone that distance too many times before, and it seems as if this life of mine is stuck between two shores, as the little ones grow older on the station’s platform, I shall undo that distance just once more. My brothers and my sisters have been scattered in the wind, dressed in cheap horizons which have never quite fitted… And they could not read and they could not write, and they could not spell their names but they took this world in both hands and they changed it all the same.

And from whence they came and where they went nobody knows or cares. Cast between two worlds, they could still be heard to say: Jonka mt’an’ami u nga lahl’ ndliziyo, jonka mt’an’ami u nga lahl’ ithemba lakho mt’an’ami (look my child don’t lose heart, look my child don’t lose your hope).
These lyrics to the Johnny Clegg song Universal Men struck a chord from the first moment I heard it play, and it defined the whole of the man that I came to know and understand intimately, first as a fellow musician, as a human rights activist, and as a scholar I met on a brief research excursion at Wits University. An enigmatic legend in his own right, Johnny Clegg was however a highly magnanimous figure whose mere presence made one aware of the true meaning of humility. To write a tribute that begins with ‘Johnny was’ is a sad tiding, but the memory of the man about which it is being written leaves one with a sense of sweet nostalgia unparalleled.

Jonathan Paul Clegg (OBE-Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, OIS-Order of Ikhamanga in Silver) was born on the 7th of June in 1953 in Bacup, Lancashire, England and passed away on the 16th of July 2019 in Johannesburg. He is the son of Dennis Clegg and Muriel (Braudo) Clegg whose family was of Jewish immigrants from Poland. The young Johnny had a secular Jewish upbringing, learning about the Ten Commandments, but he refused to have the standard Jewish bar mitzvah (the coming of age ritual) and could not associate with the other children at school.

His parents divorced when he was still an infant and he moved with his mother to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) then to South Africa at the age of six, spending part of a year in Israel. As an adolescent in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, he got his first sounds of the Zulu migrant workers music and dance. Under the guidance of Charlie Mzila, a cleaner at the block of flats Johnny and family stayed in. It is through association with Baba Mzila that the young Johnny mastered isiZulu and the isishameni dance styles of the migrant workers. In the process, he was introduced to the maskandi guitar style the Zulu musicians used as accompaniment to their vocal repertoire.

This was deep in the dark days of apartheid, and by his association with black musicians in the still of the night, Johnny Clegg was first arrested at the age of 15 and was charged under the association acts of South Africa banning the interracial association and congregation of people after curfew hours.
He then later met Sipho Mchunu at the age of 17 and they formed the band Juluka (Sweat) and they were profiled in a television documentary in the 1970’s. The band Juluka was made of an equal mix of black and white musicians and they released their first album Universal Men in 1979.

The album faced the wrath of the censorship laws of the apartheid government and the members had to deal with constant harassment from the authorities, rendering the band’s public performances impossible. By virtue of being a mixed-race band, Juluka tested the apartheid laws and had to perform at private venues such as universities, churches, hostels and others to promote their music because national broadcasters would not air their music.

Hidden in the intricate verses of their multi-lingual music were coded messages of protest that were political in nature. This was in sync with the prevailing circumstances of political and racial struggle in the latter days of the apartheid era.
In a 1989 interview, Johnny Clegg ditched the popular label of him being a political activist in a brief answer:
For me, a political activist is someone who has committed himself to a particular ideology. I don’t belong to any political party. I stand for human rights.

Taken from the words of a man who first encountered the fallacy of apartheid as a teenager and understood apartheid’s irrelevance in answering the basic realities resulting from harmonious human interactions ignorant of race, Johnny Clegg in all extent remained a true musician at heart. He delivered the music of Africa without reference to party colour but only as a pure musician would.
The truth his music presents images of an Africa torn by apartheid but still managing to be a brave continent struggling to come to terms with the wars of separation often termed as liberation.

The good thing about the music is that the role of the individual African man, woman and child in not forgotten but is actually put on a pedestal for the entire world to understand the full extent of the daily struggles in the face of divisive racial segregation policies and which are enforced by the government.
The musician in him fostered a spirit of unity despite the divisions nurtured by apartheid policy. The songs he composed were meant to address the social maladies and injustices on the different types of individuals existent in society. In an earlier article on social cohesion, his words are noted as the tie that binds society, addressing the conditions of the oppressed. The articles states:

We could not see the world as that Johnny Clegg song Universal Men sees it, expressing it through the lives of the men and the women (who sadly are never acknowledged for their roles as the suppliers of the food, the company for the injured, and the general welfare officers of the labourers on the various construction sites across the world). Though the song only seems to note men, the children on the pavement are not forgotten, and I guess to a certain extent the lonely women and mothers they leave at home are acknowledged in the chorus:
Jonka mtan’ami, u nga lahl’ indliziyo…

Through his naturally rebellious character, and the reality that he was in fact an outsider in the communities he grew up in, it seems that Johnny Clegg found his home among the underclass of common segregated society. This is the place of abject poverty and dreadful living conditions, but it is also a place where all the wealth of a society’s culture is found. Being some kind of melting pot itself, the Johannesburg in which he lived and died was the lure for many of the migrant labourers that came to search for employment and livelihood from the city’s early days in the mid-1800’s.

Those who came did not forget the songs of their homelands in Kwa-Zulu, the Transkei, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, E Swatini, Mozambique, Ciskei and the other homelands of the different tribes living in Southern Africa. By adopting and adapting a music style different from the conventional styles of his own race group, Johnny Clegg became a living epitome and example that racial division is a farce that cannot define human potential or deny the human spirit of unity ignorant of race, culture, or credo.

One can assume that the travail of the white boy carrying messages of hope for distances far from the homeland to the entire world could be one lonely undertaking if he did not move in company with fellow human beings of a different race. A creative outlook assumes that those of a different culture and language do speak in a tongue that one can understand if they bother to listen as closely as Johnny Clegg did under the tutelage of the Zulu maestros on the rooftop of the block of flats where he grew up.
The young white boy knew that they the men singing in chorus were actually encouraging each other with the songs they imparted to him above as they carried the heavy burden of being third class citizens in the land of their forefathers as they had done across the varying landscapes on the journey across the expanse of history in the heart of the colonial rule.

The lesson from the musician that defied the odds and presumed tendencies in the system of apartheid to the individual human mind is that there should be a culture of encouragement between our different cultures and selves living in human communities across the globe. The regression of the world in terms of fostering the spirit of peace stems from constant focus on only the most negative aspects of our behaviour.

Largely dependent on the colonial spirit of individualism, the world has managed thus far to create abysses where once there were no fissures. Apartheid survived by first breaking down the most salient and basic units of human connection and then moving on to squander whatever resources there were to keep the people well enough to care about each other.
The migrant worker had no voice, but the generosity to share whatever knowledge of their culture with the little boy at the end of the day gave birth to a musician that taught the world that racial segregation as fostered by apartheid was in actual fact only a lie meant to divide the majority to furnish the looting of the land and the labour reserve. The musician became the voice that brought the lament of a cleaner to the attention of the world.

The song, Africa, bears a chorus that laments the plight of the black people of the continent, toiling under heinous conditions, chinning it on despite constant travail, and still being able to reveal tremendous acts of kindness despite the nervous conditions and perilous times. One cannot help but be entranced by the cry:
Afrika ku khala abancwele, eAfrika kukhala abancwele wena (in Africa the saints weep) Hlala Hlala he was born in the African dawn and orphaned to the land, so gentle in the eye he was as any woman’s child…There’s a song to be sung that can heal these broken men, Let us sing and we’ll walk through the dark, Hand in hand, hand in hand…

It takes personal decision on the part of the griot of a people to address wrongs inflicted on the masses by the ruling classes. It takes a brave heart to risk one’s life for the sake of the welfare of other people, and Johnny Clegg seems to have risked more than just his life in the process of forming Juluka and Savuka to address the wrong that the apartheid system was to Africa and the human race.
Banned and censored, declared a pariah by fellow musicians in overseas organisations for playing for local South African audiences, it did not deter the progress of Jonathan Clegg’s commitment to being an advocate of human rights and an activist for social equality. Through song, the Johannesburg boy that fell in love with migrant music became the voice of a movement that succeeded in the uprooting of segregationist policies of apartheid. There is no better song than the song that frees the people not only in mind but that which also frees them in deed.

Through and through, he was the voice of a people silenced by an oppressive system, and by and by the oppressor had to bow to the words of the White Zulu shouting at the Jericho walls of Apartheid.
From the Scatterlings of Africa to Asimbonanga, the music that the maestro from eJoni brought to the world was meant to unite us all, to remind us of our visceral commonality, and to help us to forget our epidermal difference. More Zulu than a lot of ‘blacks’ u bab’ Johnny remains the epitome of what the African meant when he or she coined the term Ubuntu/Botho.

It is a Samaritan term that knows no race, creed or colour, and it seems that he lived it until the moment that he made the crossing on to the other side where we shall one day meet again. Now one understands the comfort in the lyrics to the song The Crossing:
O siyeza sizofika we baba no ma, siyagudla lo mhlaba, siyawela laphesheya ku lezo ntaba ezimnyama, lapha so bheka phansi, konke ukuhlupheka
Indeed we arrive soon in that land beyond where all our pain is forgotten and our troubles go away. I hope the same has happened for Bab’ Johnny Clegg. Hamba Kahle Wakithi.

Tsépiso Mothibi

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