President Jacob Zuma

Lucas Ledwaba07/19/2019
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Johnny Clegg just wanted to play music. But South Africa’s white people never understood why he wanted to spend time with black people writes Styles Lucas Ledwaba

He tells a good story just as well as he makes music. He’s an interviewer’s dream. You ask one question and he tells one great story after another.

It’s perhaps a wonderful thing that he’s writing a book on the band Juluka, which took him and his friend Sipho Mchunu from the obscurity of playing music in the migrant hostels of Johannesburg to international fame back in the late 70s and early 80s.

In September 2013 he’s hoping to take his life story, through a musical titled The Johnny Clegg Story, to the stage.

Hopefully this story will portray incidents like the one that happened while he was walking down Rissik street in central Johannesburg back in the early 1970s, strumming his guitar, singing maskanda music, an almost unthinkable sight in a South Africa in which the apartheid laws forbade any sort of inter-racial or cultural flirtation.

“Vuilgoed!” a white firefighter, seemingly disgusted by the sight of a young white man flirting with black culture and language screamed from the top of a building.

“Voetsek!” came Clegg’s defiant response.

Before he knew it, the fireman and an accomplice were chasing him down the street. But when he reached Walmer hostel, where he was well known among the Zulu migrant community, his pursuers backed off and resorted instead to insults.

It was incidents like these, which happened often, that saw him earn the isiZulu praise names, bamzonda eKillarney\bamzonda eHillbrow\ abafuni umlungu odla uphuthu nabantu!

Loosely translated, it means “they hate him in Killarney, they hate him in Hillbrow, they despise a white man who eats uphuthu with black people.”

But he was popularly known in Zulu street music circles as Madlebe, big ears, for reasons best understood by looking at his ears.

“That was my life. I grew up in the hostels,” says Clegg just hours before he is set to receive the Order of  Ikhamanga from president Jacob Zuma on Freedom Day.

Clegg was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga 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.

“Hee, mfowethu! People don’t know what we went through,” he says of his constant conflict with the apartheid laws.

His forays into the hostels and befriending Zulu migrant who also doubled up as street musicians, often led to his arrest and police harassment.

As a white man, he had to apply for permission from the authorities to be allowed into in a hostel. But such an application would most probably be turned down or take many months before it was granted. And even then permission would be granted for just a few hours.

“I just wanted to play music. That’s all I wanted to do. But the white people could never understand why I wanted to spend time with black people. To them it was always something criminal, they thought it was about dagga, they never thought these were just normal people. But I went anyway, I wanted to play,” says Clegg.

And he paid a heavy price.

He was often arrested for trespassing, for being in a black area without a permit; at school he was ostracized by some of his peers and on the family front, some relatives accused him of bringing disgrace to the family name, all because he dared to defy apartheid’s racial segregation laws and reached out to the other side.

“I always asked them why they were criminalising my behaviour because I was doing nothing illegal? Even then I was aware that there’s something as an unjust law. I never even thought of giving up,” he says.

And from the hostels he learnt more than strumming the guitar and dancing. Instead he learnt important aspects of Zulu life and culture, isiZulu, stick fighting, traditional dance, ukuphalaza, the use of intelezi and the sacred ways of healing. But what intrigued him the most were the stories of the men, proud warriors in their villages and regions, but reduced to sweeping the streets for a pittance in the city, yet remaining upbeat and continuing to embrace life with a wicked sense of humour.

It was these stories, he says, which influenced his strong lyric writing which produced such hits as Woza Friday, ScattIerlings of Africa, African Sky Blue, The Mainstay Cup Final Song, Zodwa and many others.

His proficiency in isiZulu and his adept dance moves earned him the monicker The White Zulu. But Clegg thinks otherwise.

“I’m more than a Zulu. I’m a South African. The Zulu experience helped me develop an African identity,” he says.

Clegg points to his childhood in Zimbabwe and Zambia as the strong foundation to his non-racial outlook on life.

He went to five different primary schools in five years in three different countries, in Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. But it was in Zambia where he went to a multi racial school, that the idea of multi-racialism was entrenched.

When he began touring overseas with Juluka, Clegg used the opportunity to campaign for change in South Africa.  Many of his songs were banned by the SA Broadcasting Corporation but this never stopped him from scaling great heights in the international charts. He’s been honoured widely overseas and here at home, but fame, it seems, has not gone to his head.

He still visits the hostels and his friend Mchunu in Kranskop, KwaZulu Natal and has his feet firmly on the ground.

And while many artists from his generation struggle to grapple with our fast changing society, Clegg believes the ground is fertile for a new revolution, which is transformation.

“During apartheid we were always against something. But when apartheid ended we had to be for something, which is what I think many people have struggled to deal with. But these are exciting times, transformation is the new agenda,” he says.

Thanks for the music, Madlebe! – This article first appeared in the City Press in 2012


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Mesut Ӧzil is a great player, very few can deliver a pass like the German. But he’s only an asset to the team going forward- trust me, I’m an Arsenal supporter who knows how painfully true that is.  The World Cup winner doesn’t toil with the rest of the boys when they need to win the ball back, rendering his services a luxury, at the expense of the Gunners.

This is similar to twanging that one would come across, when in the company of those who former President Jacob Zuma would label “smart blacks.” Hey, I’m not necessarily biased against people who have a nasally manner of articulation, because I have a bit of that too owing to where I went to school and even the Hip Hop culture I grew-up engrossed in. I just get annoyed when we as society begin to equate fluency in English, to intelligence.

I often find myself in spaces where conversations about a plethora of things are abound; from spirituality, sexual orientation, artistry, socio-economics and so forth. With these exchanges, various ideas and opinions come to the fore, which is all well and fine with me. But it’s the gang from multiracial schools who’d often show-off their well-spoken English, but essentially adding naught to the conversation. What makes the whole picture worse, is that more often than not, the other blacks would be so gobsmacked by the speaker’s eloquence, they’d be too intimidated to even rebuff what they just heard.

Go to any Higher Education institution around Gauteng, where you would find students who hail from Township schools and rural parts of the country being ostracised for not being as articulate in the English language. But these are the same students who are passing their courses-while the “good speakers” are stuck repeating classes.

This isn’t to suggest multiracial or Model C schools never produce top students, and that rural and kasi schools don’t flunk in university- but there’s a sense that we as young black people are polarized by how we speak this English.

But this isn’t unique to young black people. The older generation has been institutionalized to be intimidated by Caucasians, hence most black parents would take their kids to larney schools with a rightful hope for a better future for their kids, but these folks also do it to make sure their kids won’t be seen as inadequate for not being able to speak fluent English.  I remember my family’s expectation for me to speak isilungu, in my first years at Primary. I didn’t understand that. The same way I don’t comprehend the jubilation of a pre-school kid’s parents, at the sound of a five year old twanging.

It’s not wrong for the child to learn a new language, but it is, to give your child ideas that their comfortability with the English language makes them better black people. I’m pretty sure that most black parents wouldn’t show off their kids’ ease with Tsonga, if their bundle of joy was able to speak the Bantu language.

It is this sort of thinking that creates a sense of Afrophobia among black people- irrational fear towards black people or anything that is of African descent. Afrophobia infiltrates everything around us, be it music, business and even media. Remember the bridge that collapsed on the M1 highway/Grayston drive which led to the deaths of two people in 2015? I bet that had that construction site been overseen by an African company, more heads would’ve rolled, rapidly. But because Murray and Roberts Holdings is white-owned, the inquiry to what happened is only taking place now, three years later.

No one dare questions white supremacy, or simply anything white. Look at what happened with the Steinhoff saga.



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