Johnny Clegg was ahead of his time but it is not too late for SA whites to learn from him

Fred Khumalo Watching You
Johnny Clegg could dance different regional interpretations of Zulu dance - isikhuze, isishiyameni, indlamu and so forth. /Jackie Clausen
Johnny Clegg could dance different regional interpretations of Zulu dance - isikhuze, isishiyameni, indlamu and so forth. /Jackie Clausen

Two years ago I heard that Johnny Clegg was sick with pancreatic cancer. As a fan and a friend, I was devastated; but at the same time hoped modern medicine would put the malevolent affliction to a halt. Isn't that the attitude we adopt when told of a loved one's misfortune? We hope it will go away.

Look, I can't claim to be a close friend of Clegg's. We were professionals who, over the past 30 years, have been feeding off each other.

When I was starting out as a journalist in the late 1980s, he was one of the first celebrities I interviewed. Realising how nervous I was, and having heard I was township born, he tried to break the ice by calling me "umany'endlini" - the one who s***s inside the house. A choice insult rural Zulus throw at their urbanised brethren.

In years to come, when my confidence as a writer increased and my fear and awe of powerful people diminished, I could muster the courage to tease him and call him Somtseu.

This is the nickname given to Theophilus Shepstone, the white administrator of colonial Natal who arrogantly assumed the mantle of "father of the Zulu people".

Clegg, a former anthropology lecturer at Wits University, would throw his head back in laughter when I called him Somtseu, a veiled insult.

"I am not claiming to know everything there is to know about Zulu people, but what I can tell you is that I can sina better than you," he would say.

Ukusina is what you would call Zulu dance. On that score he was correct. He could dance different regional interpretations of Zulu dance - isikhuze, isishiyameni, indlamu and so forth.

Sometimes he would say, "Khumalo, you know you're not a proper Zulu. Proper Zulus are those who live on the other side of uThukela (River), the ones who never left Zululand during Shaka's wars. All of you black people on this side of uThukela (Natal) are not proper Zulus because you ran away and chose to become Christians."

He knew that always drove me mad, even though it is historically accurate, if you want to nitpick.

Unlike many white people who know African languages and customs, he never had a patronising, I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself attitude when he came across black people less adept at their own history.

Born in England, but raised in suburban Johannesburg, Clegg could have chosen the life of the privileged white professor - aloof, disinterested in politics.

But in his teens, he introduced himself to Charles Mzila, a "garden boy" in the neighbourhood. Mzila taught him isiZulu, and how to play guitar the Zulu way.

Mzila then introduced him to Sipho Mchunu. Clegg and Mchunu started playing their acoustic guitars, performing at private functions at the houses of white liberals and at embassies.

They were harassed by police. Black and white performing together was not a done thing in apartheid South Africa.

Clegg decided they should call themselves Juluka - sweat in isiZulu. They were, black and white together, sweating under the yoke of apartheid. One of the hits from this era is African Sky Blue, which still brings tears to my eyes.

As this is not an obituary, I will spare you the details of Clegg's life.

Suffice it to say, had just 10% of the white population adopted his open-mindedness, this country could have been spared a lot of bloodshed.

Clegg was ahead of his time. But it is not too late for whites in this country to learn from Clegg. The fact that he moved among black people, spoke their language did not diminish his "civilisation".

In fact, it only deepened it. For proper civilisation means harnessing human potential, and giving it meaning and direction.

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