The “White Zulu” of South Africa: A Tribute to Johnny Clegg

Nelson Mandela.  Desmond Tutu.  These two must be among the biggest names of our time. Both proudly South African.  Both closely connected to Cape Town.  Both statesmen of the world.  And both at the heart of the stories we’ll be telling in TourMagination’s upcoming 2020 tour to South Africa.

But there’s another name that is worthy of our attention and it is that of Johnny Clegg.  He was born in 1953 in England of all places, though he moved to South Africa with his mom at the age of 6, after his parents divorced.  Johnny grew up in the backstreets of Johannesburg.  These were the peak years of Apartheid in South Africa (something else that we’ll be looking at closely on our tour).  Whites and non-whites simply did not mix.

But Johnny Clegg did.  As his mom had limited financial means he grew up on the streets.   Here he encountered many Zulu migrant workers who had come to “Jo’burg” in search of work.  Johnny met them on the streets.  He learned their language.  He learned their dances.  He learned how to play their musical instruments.  After a while people would refer to him as South Africa’s “white Zulu”, and he wore it proudly.

Then Johnny stepped out.  In the 1970s he formed the first of several mixed race bands, a definite no-no in the South Africa of the time.  He wrote songs that included English and Zulu lyrics mixed.  That was also a no-no.  He danced with Zulu singers on stage while he was singing those songs.  Also a no-no.  He was arrested off and on, but always came back singing.  Defiant.

In what may have been his signature song, he wrote “Asimbonanga” in 1987 in tribute to the many anti-Apartheid activists who were imprisoned, and whose photos were banned in all of South Africa.  He dedicated the song to Nelson Mandela, then in prison on Robben Island (which we’ll be seeing in February of 2020).  “Asimbonanga” means “he is not seen”.  For a moving version of this piece, performed in the post-apartheid years, see:

You will recognize the surprise visitor.

We heard Johnny Clegg live in a Toronto concert a couple of years ago and it was electric.

Johnny Clegg died yesterday, 16 July 2019, after a battle with cancer.

Johnny Clegg was proudly South African.  As South African as Mandela and Tutu.  As South African as the “Big 5” of Lion, Elephant and so on.   As South African as Cape Town, Cape of Good Hope and Table Mountain.  His voice will be missed.  But it will not quickly disappear.


By Len & Mary Friesen, tour leaders for our South Africa tour


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