Newsmaker: ‘I am more than a Zulu’

2012-05-12 14:58

Johnny Clegg tells a story just as well as he sings a song. He’s an interviewer’s dream. You ask a question and he tells one great story after another.

It’s a wonderful thing, then, 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 Johannesburg’s migrant hostels to international fame in the late 70s and early 80s.

In September next year he hopes to take his life story to the stage in a musical titled The Johnny Clegg Story.

Hopefully, the story will include incidents like what happened to him in Rissik Street in the early 1970s, as he was strumming his guitar, singing maskandi music – unthinkable in apartheid South Africa.

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

“Voetsek!” yelled Clegg in 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 to the Zulu migrant community, his pursuers backed off and ­resorted instead to insults.

It was frequent incidents like these that earned him the isiZulu praise names, ­bamzonda eKillarney, bamzonda eHillbrow, abafuni umlungu odla uphuthu nabantu!

Loosely translated, they mean “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 them.

“That was my life. I grew up in the hostels,” said Clegg before receiving the Order of Ikhamanga from President Jacob Zuma on Freedom Day. Clegg was honoured for his ­excellent contribution to bridging African traditional music with other music forms, promoting racial understanding, working for a non-racial society and speaking out 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 of Zulu ­migrants who also doubled up as street ­musicians often led to his arrest and police harassment.

“I just wanted to play music. That’s all I wanted to do. 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,” he says.

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 ostracised and on the family front, some relatives accused him of bringing disgrace to the ­family name.

“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.

From the hostels he learnt more than how to play guitar and dance. He learnt to speak isiZulu, important aspects of Zulu life and culture, stick fighting, traditional dance, the use of intelezi (herbs) and the sacred ways of healing. But what intrigued him most were the stories of the men, proud warriors in their villages, 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 that influenced his strong lyric writing which produced hits such as Woza Friday, Scatterlings of Africa, African Sky Blue, Zodwa and many others.

His proficiency in isiZulu and his dance moves earned him the monicker The White Zulu. But Clegg disagrees.
“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 foundation of his non­racial outlook. He went to five different ­primary schools in five years in three different countries: Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Africa. But it was in Zambia at a multi-racial school where the idea 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 SABC but this never stopped him from topping international charts. He’s been honoured widely overseas and at home, but fame, it appears, has not gone to his head.

He still visits the hostels and his friend ­Mchunu in Kranskop, KwaZulu-Natal.

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!

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