The case of the white Zulus

2012-09-22 08:27

It’s an irresistible romantic cliche.

That age-old image of a migrant labourer coming into the Joburg metropolis from the dark and dire villages of KwaZulu-Natal to find work.

He carries a leather bag on one arm, a knobkerrie and a guitar on the other.

He finds fame and fortune with his story as told through song.

He strums and chants in those inimitable musical styles called maskandi and mbaqanga.

We can thank everyone from Shwi Nomtekhala to Phuzekhemisi and Khethani for setting loose this fixation with being the latest urban Zulu griot.

Enter Johnny Clegg and Juluka.

They gave us that lovely stereotype of a cute white guy embracing Zulu identity, complete with imbatata (car-tyre rubber sandals), leopard-print vests and umblaselo (cargo pants decorated with beads and colour patches).

Clegg speaks fluent Zulu and even does the warrior dance more convincingly than those shabby troupes employed to fawn overseas dignitaries at airport entrances across the land.

Now let’s allow the proverbial jury to stay out on whether this qualifies as something more than “pyrrhic victory over (historical) devaluations of black humanity”, as Greg Tate, the African-American writer puts it.

Put aside whether it is imitation as the highest form of flattery by former beneficiaries of that devaluation of legitimate art.

There are more young Afrikaner teenagers who’ve sincerely taken to the Johnny Clegg archetype, or mlungu-Zulu fascination.
One of them is Sean Terblanche, otherwise known as iBhubesi Elimhlophe (Zulu for white lion).

I meet the rising maskandi musician in Auckland Park.

The 32-year-old iBhubesi cuts a large figure with a perennial smile. He sports a crown made from springbok hide, and his golf shirt is decorated with strings and beads.

There’s a shake and wiggle that follows every step when he walks.

 This is a huge, jovial man. As we sit, he tells me he was born along Durban’s South Beach “on the second to last floor of Addington Hospital. It was a beautiful area back then,” he says.

He marks this sense of detail with a chuckle. He takes a sip of his cappuccino and professes his love for his home city.
He then tells me that his father, Peter Terblanche, is the one who inspired his love of music and all things Zulu.

“My dad could foresee that this was going to help me in life.”

He says his father, a technician at Bakers biscuit factory, worked with a man iBhubesi calls uMadala, or simply Mike.

“He used to look after me. I remember him buying me pie and having braais with my dad and other Zulu old men back home,” says iBhubesi with a slight hint of emotion in his voice.

From these working-class men, along with others at the taxi ranks across Durban, iBhubesi says he got his instruction in Zulu culture.

“They enjoyed my guitar-playing and encouraged me.”

It wasn’t all sweet melodies, though. iBhubesi lost his father in 2001 and, a while after moving to Joburg, he fell ill.

“I couldn’t walk properly and had a heavy smoking addiction, which gave me a very painful coughing sickness.”

He was advised to seek help at Shembe Zionist Church. He went.

“The reverend there just looked at me and said ‘God bless you’ and I was healed. Just like that,” iBhubesi says matter-of-factly.

He also credits his musical breakthrough to that encounter. Hence he still goes to Shembe.

Beaming, he shares verses from his two albums.

The first one is called Cellphone. Its title track chastises a lover who whispers and walks out of the room every time they answer their mobile phone. It’s classic maskandi with a catchy chorus, lilting poetic breaks and virtuoso acoustic guitar lines.

The song has received airplay on Ukhozi FM and taxi ranks across the Zulu-speaking world. uMthakathi, his latest album, is scheduled to hit stores next month.

iBhubesi moves to the edge of the seat to tell me more.

“It’s about the witches causing trouble in our communities.

They are making us fight and be sick. In the olden days, when our Zulu kings were ruling, we used to impale them. Now the witches have rights too. So we can’t put a stick up their behind until they die.”

He continues: “Zulus love this song. They understand what I’m talking about. They are with me on this one.”

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