'The White Zulu' Johnny Clegg succumbs to cancer

Johnny Clegg, in this file picture, performs isicathamiya zulu dance. On Tuesday he died of pancreatic cancer.
Johnny Clegg, in this file picture, performs isicathamiya zulu dance. On Tuesday he died of pancreatic cancer.
Image: Tsheko Kabasia

Music legend Johnny Clegg has died of pancreatic cancer.

He was 66.

Johnny, who was fondly known among his legion of fans as The White Zulu, was popular for singing his songs both in Zulu and English.

He became a household name in townships and rural areas in the height of apartheid in the 1980s when he formed a band Juluka with Sipho Mchunu. Juluka was later disbanded when Mchunu decided to call it quits when he went to his rural village in KwaZulu-Natal to start a new career as a farmer.

Some of his popular offerings included Scatterlings of Africa, Asimbonanga and Impi. 

A media statement released by Johnny's family said he was diagnosed with the pancreatic cancer in July 2015.

"It is with immense sadness that we confirm that Jonathan (Johnny) Clegg, OBE OIS, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 66 on the afternoon of 16 July 2019 at his family home in Johannesburg," said Johnny's manager, friend and family spokesperson Roddy Quin.

"Johnny leaves deep footprints in the hearts of every person that considers him/herself to be an African. He showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity," said Quin.

He described Johnny as an anthropologist who used his music to speak to every person.

"With his unique style of music he traversed cultural barriers like few others. In many of us he awakened awareness," he said.

South African music icon Johnny Clegg died on July 16 2019. Referred to as the ‘white Zulu’, the singer-songwriter died from pancreatic cancer.

Johnny was born on June 7 1953 in Bacup, Lancashire, England and moved to SA with his Rhodesian mother when he was only six years old.

Quin said Johnny's exposure to Zulu migrant workers during adolescence introduced him to the culture and music. His involvement with black musicians often saw him arrested during apartheid. 

"At the age of 17, together with Sipho Mchunu they formed their first band called Juluka. At the age of 33 in 1986, during the height of apartheid, he partnered with Dudu Zulu to form his second inter-racial band called Savuka.

"Clegg also recorded several solo albums and enjoyed international success selling out concerts wherever he performed.

"Apart from lecturing at the universities of the Witwatersrand and Natal respectively, Johnny studied anthropology and combined his studies with music."

He was awarded by a number of local and international bodies for his contribution to music and society notably by the French Government in 1991 with a Knight of Arts and Letters, and in 2015 he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

In 2012 he received the Order of Ikhamanga from the South African government. He was awarded a number of Honorary doctorates by the universities of the Witwatersrand (South Africa), KwaZulu-Natal, Dartmouth College in the US and the City University of New York.

He authored and published the book "UkuBuyisa Isidumbu" (1981, Ravan Press), and presented papers on "The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers in Johannesburg" in 1981 at the Grahamstown International Library of African Music and "Towards an understanding of African Dance: The Zulu Isishameni Style" in 1982 at Rhodes University.

April 22, 2014. IN THE PIPELINE: The much-loved Johnny Clegg on his way to PE for two shows in April 2014.
April 22, 2014. IN THE PIPELINE: The much-loved Johnny Clegg on his way to PE for two shows in April 2014.
Image: Supplied

Despite being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, Johnny continued to tour and perform around the world to pay homage to his fans worldwide. 

"His passing has left us numb and we request that the family's privacy be respected during this trying time," Quin said.

"The family will be holding a private funeral service and we ask you to please respect the families wishes.

"There will be a service for public to pay their respects and the details hereof will be announced in due course."

Johnny is survived by his wife of 31 years, Jenny, and their two sons Jesse and Jaron.

On social media tributes poured in yesterday for the late singer.

The government wrote on Twitter: "Condolences to family and friends of Johnny Clegg -one of South Africa’s most celebrated sons. He was a singer, a songwriter, a dancer, anthropologist whose infectious crossover music exploded onto the international scene and contributed towards social cohesion."

“His music had the ability to unite people across the races and bring them together as a community. Clegg has made an indelible mark in the music industry and the hearts of the people," read the government statement.

Sport, arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa said: "A towering giant has fallen with the passing of legendary Singer-songwriter & Anthropologist Johnny Clegg.

"Our hearts are sore and as he famously sang in Asimbonanga 'oh the sea is cold & the sky is grey' as we contend with the loss of a torchbearer of our struggle for freedom," wrote Mthethwa on Twitter.

DA MP Phumzile van Damme wrote: "Hamba kahle Johnny Clegg. Through music, you, Juluka & Savuka sang in defiance against Apartheid.

"We shall forever remember you. No better tribute to a national icon while he still lived than the rendition of 'The Crossing' by the 'Friends of Johnny Clegg'," said Van Damme.

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