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