After seeing Hugh Masekela in concert a few weeks ago, I thought it couldn’t get much better than that here in South Africa. But on a recent trip to Durban, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to see another South African musical legend live in concert — Johnny Clegg.
Johnny Clegg, a white South African, formed two different multiracial bands during apartheid (Juluka in 1969 and Savuka in 1986), and consistently used his music as a form of protest against the South African government. It was a rebellious act in itself to form a multiracial band during apartheid. Clegg also blended English lyrics and Western melodies with Zulu lyrics and rhythms and infused both Zulu and English lyrics into his songs, as well preforming traditional Zulu dances on stage during his concerts, to the point where he was nicknamed “the white Zulu.” He recently said, though, with great symbolism: “I’m more than a Zulu. I’m a South African.”
His 1979 album with Juluka, “Universal Men,” was a musical journey into the life of the Zulu migrant worker, living and working in the city, but continually journeying home, caught between two different worlds. One of Clegg’s most well-known resistance song — “Asimbonanga” (“We Have Not Seen Him”) — came with his band Savuka in 1987. Sung partly in Zulu, the song is Clegg’s tribute to Nelson Mandela. In it, he calls for the release of Mandela, while also calling out the names of martyrs of the South African liberation struggle, including Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge, and Neil Aggett.
It is amazing that with the strictly enforced policies of apartheid that a musician like this could have been able to not only last, but to become wildly popular throughout the country. Due to the enforced racial segregation of the time, they could only play in private venues as the law forbade mixed race performances in public venues and spaces. Testing the law, they played at universities, church halls, migrant labor hostels and even in the lounges of private houses, always having to be aware of when the security police might show up and arrest them. It is amazing that Johnny Clegg and his music could have survived apartheid, and even more amazing that so many people defied the laws and flocked to see his shows and buy his records for years.
Seeing him in concert in South Africa was truly special. It was a sold-out crowd in Durban and the crowd knew every single word of his songs, dancing and singing along throughout the entire show. Something tells me that seeing him in South Africa is a completely different experience than seeing him anywhere else around the world.
When I saw him in concert, he was fresh off receiving the Order of Ikhamanga by President Zuma just a few weeks ago. He received the award for “his excellent contribution to and achievement in the field of bridging African traditional music with other music forms, promoting racial understanding among racially divided groups in South Africa under difficult apartheid conditions, working for a non-racial society and being an outstanding spokesperson for the release of political prisoners.”
A comment I heard on the radio the day before the show sums up Johnny Clegg and his impact on South Africa, as a DJ said, “Johnny Clegg makes me proud to be South African.” That is the influence of Johnny Clegg here in South Africa.