Johnny Clegg, South Africa’s 'White Zulu' rocker, dies aged 66

Rodger Bosch, AFP | Johnny Clegg performs during the Nelson Mandela tribute concert, called, " A life celebrated", at Cape Town Stadium on December 1.1 2013, in Cape Town.

South African rocker Johnny Clegg, whose best-known songs included one dedicated to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, was beloved at home and abroad for using music as a unifying force in a nation scarred by apartheid.


Nicknamed the “White Zulu”, he mastered the language, culture and high kicks of Zulu dance, creating two multi-racial bands in defiance of the segregationist laws of the apartheid-era government, which censored his work.

“We had to find our way around a myriad of laws that prevented us from mixing across racial lines,” he told AFP in 2017.

With curly hair and an amiable demeanour, Clegg maintained his energy and passion even as pancreatic cancer took hold, embarking on a “Final Journey Tour” of several countries in 2017 after being diagnosed two years earlier.

He died of cancer at his home in Johannesburg on Tuesday, aged 66.

In a career that spanned four decades, he sold more than five million albums, earned a slate of international awards and provided a soundtrack to the anti-apartheid struggle and South Africa’s transition to multi-racial democracy in 1994.

Dancing with Mandela

His song “Asimbonanga” was dedicated to Mandela and released in 1987, when the future first black president of South Africa was still jailed as a threat to the apartheid state.

Meaning “We have not seen him” in Zulu, the haunting hymn was one of the first songs openly to call for the release of Mandela, who spent 27 years locked away, even his photo barred from newspapers.

The authorities banned the anthem but it became a national favourite.

In what Clegg said was a highlight of his career, Mandela made a surprise entrance on stage during a performance of the hit in Frankfurt in 1999.

“I was in the first verse of the chorus when the audience erupted and I thought ‘wow! they know my song’, but it was Mandela, walking behind me on stage,” he told journalists in 2017.

Zulu migrant workers

Clegg was born in 1953 in Bacup, near Manchester in England, and moved with his mother to Zimbabwe as a boy and then to South Africa.

In his early teens in Johannesburg, he came across Zulu migrant workers playing street guitar and started taking lessons. It was an introduction into Zulu language, music and dance that set the course for his life.

Clegg continued to learn from these men who had left their homes to find work in the city but kept their traditions alive, visiting their barracks-like hostels and taking part in their dancing competitions.

“I felt like an immigrant,” he told the New York Times in 1990. “The migrant workers were themselves immigrants, so we had a similar feeling of marginality in the city... That was emotionally something I could relate to.”

He took his passion to Wits University where he studied anthropology with a focus on Zulu music and dance, staying on as a lecturer.


Clegg’s reputation as a “Zulu guitarist” led to a meeting with self-taught street musician Sipho Mchunu, another migrant worker, and the pair went on to found the band Juluka, which means “sweat” in Zulu.

Challenging apartheid laws that prohibited mixed-race performances in public venues, they played at universities, church halls and migrant hostels. They were subject to harassment from the authorities and sometimes arrest.

In 1979 they released their first album, “Universal Men,” when Clegg turned professional.

Juluka’s music received little airplay in South Africa but reached large international audiences through 1982-1983 tours of Europe and North America. The song “Scatterlings of Africa” topped the charts in England and France, where Clegg was particularly celebrated.


The group disbanded when Mchunu returned to his family farm in 1985 and Clegg formed Savuka, which means “we have risen”.

The band took up the successful path laid by Juluka, including “Asimbonanga” on the 1987 album “Third World Child”, but broke up after group member Dudu Zulu was shot dead in 1992.

The fall of apartheid in 1994 was like a rebirth for South Africans, Clegg said in a 2002 interview, and brought new challenges.

“We are dealing with and trying to find workable solutions to nation-building, giving a voice to the poor and uneducated, with AIDS, with unemployment,” he said.

Clegg pursued a solo career that included performances to benefit AIDS awareness.

Ahead of his 2017 farewell tour, he told AFP it was a “kind of conclusion” to a journey that started when he was aged 14.

“It has been a rewarding career in so many aspects... to be able to unite people through song, especially at a time where it seemed impossible,” he said.

He has two sons with his wife, Jennifer, one of whom is popular rock musician Jesse Clegg.


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