Truths that moved a nation

2013-12-10 17:00

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Madiba’s life inspired one of my most famous songs, writes Johnny Clegg

Asimbonanga was written in 1985 in Johannesburg after the declaration of the first state of emergency. My new band, Savuka, was rehearsing in a rough part of Braamfontein in a cheap rehearsal room.

For some days we had been seriously discussing the state of emergency, and its implications for us as artists and citizens of the country.

During a lunch break, when the guys had drifted off to the fish and chips shop to get takeaways (normally Russians and chips or my favourite, hot chicken livers with a half white), the chorus came to me.

I had tried for some time to write a song about Mandela and other prominent activists who had paid the ultimate price for their beliefs.

But when I put it together it always sounded a little too strident and one-dimensional.

As a writer I have always tried to steer away from political propaganda.

I tried rather to find an angle or story where the listener discovers the issue in the song and is hopefully moved and can then claim it as theirs.

I struggled to find a theme that all South Africans could share.

After looking outward into the greater social and political environment for inspiration, I eventually turned inward and thought: “What is it that I share with other South Africans that is a simple truth about Nelson Mandela?”

What I came up with is that I and my entire generation had never ever seen a picture of Mandela.

We didn’t know and never had known what he really looked like because he was jailed for life. And it was a criminal offence to possess or distribute pictures of him.

I thought that was a good beginning. It wasn’t a strident political statement. It was simply a fact: We were the generation that had never seen him. Asimbonanga – “We didn’t see him” in Zulu and Xhosa. And the rest of the song just took shape on that day.

The chorus goes:


(We have not seen him)

Asimbonang’ uMandela thina

(We have not seen Mandela)


(In the place where he is)

Laph’ehleli khona

(In the place where he is kept)

From this fact the verse emerged and anchored the song on the metaphor of Robben Island.

Asimbonanga says that we are all islands in South Africa until we cross the burning water – the distance from Robben Island to Cape Town.

That short distance is what made us all islands and cut us off from one another.

In the second verse, I made my move by setting up the chorus with the words: “Who can close the distance between you and me? We have not seen him, Mandela.”

Asimbonanga was banned by the SABC, as was the video.

But many brave DJs snuck the track in at different times on different radio stations. The song went to Number 1 in France, Belgium and Switzerland.

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