JOHNNY CLEGG, 1953–2019
The dance ends for Johnny Clegg, SA’s beloved musical storyteller
By Tony Jackman• 16 July 2019
Johnny Clegg’s final journey is over. It came to an end after he had endured a four year battle with pancreatic cancer. Clegg was always most comfortable — in the public view, on stage, singing, playing guitar and township concertina — telling life stories and stomping around like a 25-year-old.
Watching Johnny Clegg on stage in Port Elizabeth at the end of January 2018, you could only shake your head in wonder at how he could do it. He leapt about the stage with the energy of a man a third of his age. You knew he had pancreatic cancer and had already endured masses of debilitating chemotherapy. Clegg said that if he were blessed to go into remission, he would come and say farewell to all of us. And he did. The concert was a penultimate. Clegg left the stage to continue the journey to the end of the road.
He knew where that road would lead. He had put it bluntly to Channel24 in September 2017:
“Pancreatic cancer is lethal. There’s no way out of it.”
So The Final Journey was hatched and embarked on. A story-telling sound-and-light extravaganza. A concert in which he took us right back to his roots, not least the startling (too many) insight into where he grew up.
“Everyone thinks,” he told his audience in that show, “that I was brought up on a farm in Natal.” Not so. His teenage stomping ground was peri-urban Joburg and its townships.
We can recap his entire life, or focus on the Johnny Clegg that mattered — matters — to us. We can step back in time to the infant born not only not in Natal, nor even Joburg, but in Rochdale, England, then raised in Zimbabwe before ending up in Jozi. We can greet the 15-year-old who met Charlie Mzila, a Zulu cleaner who taught him Zulu music and traditional Inhlangwini dancing. The teenage boy, guitar in hand, following Charlie — as the Final Journey official programme notes — “accompanied Mzila to all the migrant labour haunts, from hostels to rooftop shebeens”.
Imagine if that white kid had been like most other white kids, too timid to venture to such places with his Zulu buddy, or not bothered to make a friend of Mzila. If young Johnny Clegg hadn’t had the stuff he did have — imagine what we all would have lost.
White South Africans today can be inspired by Clegg’s example to do the same thing, encourage their kids to befriend that coloured or black kid, invite them home, play in the park with them, ask to be taught something of their culture.
We can revisit Johnny Clegg learning to play eccentric African instruments that few if any other white boys ever have or will play. And learning to play the concertina the way they do in the townships, so it sounds like another instrument altogether.
We can recall the Clegg arrested for contravening the Group Areas Act, spending time somewhere where he wasn’t supposed to be by law. Clegg is a competent Maskandi guitarist. This reputation was reaching the musical ear of Sipho Mchunu and starting to make music and to record. Bringing us songs like African Sky Blue, with the unforgettable guitar riff intro with which Mchunu, now long retired, will forever be associated. Now without Johnny.
Mchunu met Clegg as early as 1969 after he moved to Joburg in search of work, when Sipho was 18, Johnny just 16. Sipho rocked up at Johnny’s flat one day to find out if the rumours about the street-guitar-playing white boy were true. Their professional association began when he challenged Johnny to a guitar play-off — the spark that ignited the musical career now ended.
In that final concert in iBhayi, Sipho suddenly comes out of retirement to join Johnny on stage, and when he first strikes up the guitar riff intro to African Sky Blue, you can taste the nostalgia in the hall.
We can remember that Clegg, despite all this, was also an anthropologist. If Clegg not met first Mzila and later Mchunu, this musical life had not found him; we may have known him as a social anthropologist. He was an academic at Wits and the University of Natal, the precursor of UKZN, for four years.
But it’s the heart of Johnny we want to remember. The Great Heart that he brought to his life and work, that’s what Clegg was — is — all about. The heart, the eyes that showed the wisdom within, also confirmed the hope of where we can and should be and the disappointment that we’re not there.
Bless the day in 1976 when Johnny and Sipho secured a recording contract and their first hit, Woza Friday. The formation of Juluka in contravention of the country’s laws that enforced separation by culture, language and race.
And then, the Eighties. The decade when the Clegg-Mchunu tsunami swamped us all. We can remember how Clegg, Juluka and Savuka made their blend of African crossover pop an integral part of the world music wave that washed over us all in the Eighties. We remember how Clegg became the beloved Le Zoulou Blanc in France. We danced and stomped at our Eighties and Nineties House parties and struggled terrain too. We partied together in our many hues, swaying to Weeping and Graceland. (On every Clegg song, we ever knew.) Being at a Clegg concert and holding our lighters high during Asimbonanga, a flickering sea of hope.
Now there were Scatterlings and Impis, Jwanasibeki and Bullets for Bafazane. There were tours, not only to South African cities but to the US and Canada, UK, Germany, the Scandinavian countries. From as early as 1985 there was no more Mchunu, who went back to his farm, hence the end of Juluka and the formation of Savuka. Clegg’s greatest successes yet were to follow. We forget that it was the Savuka years when they were at their height of fame, even becoming, in 1990, the biggest-selling world music group — on the planet.
As we left the theatre in January to walk back to 0ur hotel along the Port Elizabeth beachfront, we mulled over what we had just experienced. He’d taken us back to the late Seventies and walked us forward to the present. Biko, Mandela, the manifold sinners of apartheid were all there. Johnny Clegg, Juluka and Savuka were woven into that terrible canvas, to shine a light and point us to better ways.
And the thought, shoulders slumped a little on that beachfront, that that was it. A line had drawn with the courage, and the plain goddamn human decency, to decide:
No. I will not just lie back and fade away until somebody says, “Hey, did you hear, Johnny Clegg died?”. No. He wrote more songs, recorded another album, released a great new hit single (King of Time). Clegg then went on tour, while in remission from a killer cancer.
And on that beachfront, we imagined the months and who knows, maybe years, ahead. Many people thought, well, that does not look like a man who is about to die. I even googled what I’d read earlier about his cancer; had I got it wrong? Six months word reached us. Johnny Clegg is in the wrong way. Best we get an obituary written. And trust me, it is the hardest thing to write. I’ve been putting it off for days, not wanting to commit those awful words to reality.
How did we know you, Johnny? Your music threads through our lives as much as your ideas do. Still, do. To the end, you remained one of the most visible examples of how we can be and should be, all of us together in one big, colourful, gumboot-stomping country. Even when so often we failed you and ourselves.
At the concert, that day in January 2018, reminded us of how we can and should be. I shook my head in gratitude at that aptly mixed audience and how my black compatriots were just as enthused as the whiteys in the crowd because everyone saw your Great Heart. Everybody loved you, Johnny.
The two songs in that concert that got me going, even more than they usually do, were Asimbonanga and The Crossing. Clegg first opened our eyes to Madiba’s Robben Island. They have explained how it must have felt to know that the water right there is all that separated him from the land and South Africa’s mutual future. Crossing that great divide that Johnny has to traverse. And knowing that was hard to understand and to hear, and the tears could contain no more.
And his voice rang out at that concert. When he sang King of Time, he had the purity and pitch of a 20-year-old. The way you sing when you know it will be the last time you sing. He danced the way you bounce when you know you will never dance again. He talked, and told, and shared like you do when you know your voice will soon be stilled.
Your music remains, we keep it with us, and whenever we play Scatterlings of Africa, sing-along to Asimbonanga, weep to The Crossing, hum the melody of Great Heart, or stomp around the lounge toImpi, singing particularly loudly on “Chelmsford’s army lay asleep” — you will be there, Johnny Clegg. King of our Time.