Johnny Clegg is bowing out after a career that dissolved race barriers
In his matric year, Johnny Clegg had a fight with his mother. Angrily, she said: “The Zulus have stolen you away from me.”
Since the age of 14, Clegg had spent every free moment singing and dancing with black South Africans at hostels, construction yards and other places where the idea of finding a white boy was an affront to apartheid sensibilities.
Since then Clegg has built a career out of those illicit sojourns, one that has seen him travel the globe and become an unofficial ambassador for Mandela-era South Africa.
Now, at the age of 63, Clegg is embarking on his final world tour before retiring from public life.
“I wanted to do this as a way of saying thank you and goodbye to the fans,” he said.
“So management and I sat down and decided this is the time to put together an autobiographical show of my life, with videos, pictures and unseen footage.”
Clegg, whose hits include Scatterlings of Africa, Impi and December African Rain, was diagnosed with cancer in 2015.
“We did chemo and had the cancer cut out. Then I went on tour and when I came back again the cancer count had gone up, so I had to do more chemo and came out of all of that at the end of January,” he said.
This latest bout of chemotherapy was enough to persuade him and his managers that the time had come to close the curtain on a career that started when a 14-year-old boy was sent to buy bread and milk and ended up falling in love with maskandi music.
This was when Clegg met Charlie Mzila, who was 24 at the time. Mzila was playing his traditional Zulu guitar and the sound of it fascinated the young Clegg, who asked if Mzila could teach him how to play.
A few hours later Clegg was learning how to play in the maskandi style in Mzila’s home when the white caretaker of the building arrived.
Shocked to find a white boy in the black man’s room, the caretaker threatened to evict Mzila and a fight nearly broke out.
“Charlie said, ‘This is my friend,’ and that was a threshold moment for me because here was this black man fighting for me. I hadn’t asked him to and he was standing up to his boss, who was a white man,” said Clegg.
That fight sparked a friendship that would start Clegg on the arrest-laden path to becoming “the White Zulu” — a title first given him by his legion of fans in France, who dubbed him le Zulu blanc.
“He [Mzila] opened a whole new universe for me. It was a complete immersion in traditional migrant labour culture,” he said.
They grew so close that members of Mzila’s clan gave Clegg praise names, a symbolic gesture indicating that he was one of them.
For a young Clegg, who felt awkward in the white world, this was a welcome escape from its stuffy militarism.
Clegg would go on to meet Sipho Mchunu, with whom he started Juluka. They released their first album in 1979. He later formed Savuka with Dudu Zulu.
Both these acts were great successes but the times Clegg seems to remember most fondly are those stolen nights spent careening from hostel to hostel, dancing and dodging the cops.
Born in England, he moved to South Africa with his parents at the age of seven.
When he takes to the world’s stages for the final time, beginning on July 1 in Cape Town and moving on to London and Dubai, the White Zulu will bid farewell to a fan base that views him as a symbol of unity and the destruction of racial barriers.
The ideal may be utopian, but it has produced a catalogue of some of the most iconic music in South African history.
BY YOLISA MKELE