One of the monikers bestowed on Johnny Clegg by his friends at Walmer hostel in Johannesburg, where he immersed himself in Zulu culture and music, was “Umfan’ owabaleka namaCheckers (The boy who fled with the shopping bags).”
He told me the fascinating and hilarious story behind this nickname during my only interview with him in April 2012.
He had run away from home yet again to sing and dance with his Zulu mates – among them Sipho Mchunu, who later became a founding member of the band Juluka with Clegg.
They were returning from buying food with the men when they were accosted near Walmer hostel by a gang of men armed to the teeth with knobkerries and other weapons. Clegg, a boy from the flatland suburb of Yeoville, who by then had no grasp of the art of stick fighting, fled the scene.
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“That was my life. I grew up in the hostels,” Clegg, who died of pancreatic cancer in Johannesburg on Tuesday, recalled.
This was the early 1970s, during the reign of John Vorster, at the height of the total suppression of dissenting voices and actions against apartheid.
South African music legend Johnny Clegg dies at 66. Picture: Media24
Clegg, known then to his newly found mates as Jonathan or madlebe, was still learning his way around the tough life of black migrant labourers from what was then Natal.
He was by all means a free man trying to live in a world that didn’t allow people to live as free men or women.
Freedom of choice and association were closely controlled and suppressed by the state through the brutal SA Police, which seemed to have ears and eyes everywhere.
Even though the regime tried to provide white people with a false sense of freedom and superiority in illusionary little pockets of Europe, they lived in a socially controlled prison where it was dictated who they could live, play, socialise and dance with, and what language they could learn and speak.
But Clegg, a naive youngster seduced by the sound of the Zulu guitar played by his friend Mzila, who later introduced him to Mchunu, was unconsciously defying all that nonsense by sneaking into the hostels to dance and sing with his pals.
He broke the law to be human and he was accepted in the true sense of ubuntu.
This and his constant forays into Zululand got him into a lot of trouble with the authorities and sections of the white population.
But among his Zulu friends he was a hero they praised saying: “Bamzonda eKillarney, bamzonda eHillbrow, abafuni umlungu odla uphuthu nabantu!” The powerful accolade meant: They hate him in Killarney, they hate him in Hillbrow, they despise a white man who eats uphuthu with black people.
In a normal society Clegg’s flirtation with Zulu culture would have been nothing to make a noise about.
But South Africa was, and continues to be, a racially polarised society struggling to shake off its racist past.
For his trouble, South Africa and the world loved Clegg back for embracing his adoptive country and its people.
In a way, his assimilation into Zulu culture and music also liberated some black minds that were schooled to believe that white was superior.
He was just an ordinary man who could khuluma and shay’ indlamu like any black person whose culture it was to do so.
When the fight broke out that night near the hostel, the Zulu men panicked and started to look for Jonathan, who was nowhere to be found.
It must have been a bunch of worried Zulu men who walked back to their hostel block that night wondering what happened to their mlungu, for it was obvious that if anything bad happened to the white boy it would no doubt attract the feared police.
Music legend Johnny Clegg chilling with his kin. Picture: Media24
But when they arrived, who did they find nervously sitting next to the plastic bags carrying their groceries? Jonathan AKA madlebe.
Upon finding him unharmed, the men erupted into a frenzy of dance and impromptu praise-singing and mockery that earned him the name Umfan’ owabaleka namaCheckers.
In the hostels he learnt more than dancing and strumming the guitar. He learnt Zulu life and culture – stick fighting, traditional dance, ukuphalaza, the use of intelezi and the sacred ways of healing.
But what intrigued him most were the stories of the men – proud warriors in their villages and regions reduced to sweeping the streets for a pittance in the city, yet they continued to embrace life with a sense of humour.
Clegg has been accused of cultural misappropriation for his own benefit.
Some say he took advantage of his proximity to the Zulu men in the hostel to carve out a lucrative career.
But truth be told, Clegg was a performer in his own right, one of the best lyricists of all time, a poet and terrific music arranger who used his craft to build bridges.
He sold more than 5 million records and won awards locally and internationally – clearly not because he was a white man misappropriating black culture.
Clegg was a superb stage performer in the mould of Lucky Dube, Mfaz’omnyama, Brenda Fassie and the Soul Brothers.
I’m not particularly sure if he was a great dancer though, but he danced better than some Zulus, such as Mondli Makhanya.
Clegg and Sipho Mchunu developed their bond at a young age. Picture: Media24
He was not Zulu, even though that’s what the world believed him to be. He was a free man, a human being who found a culture to love, embrace and live.
Indications are that he didn’t quite like the term “white Zulu” bestowed upon him.
He cringed at the idea of collecting his award dressed in Zulu traditional attire. It would be disrespectful, he felt.
“I’m more than Zulu. I’m a South African. The Zulu experience helped me develop an African identity,” Clegg told me that morning before he was to receive the Order of Ikhamanga from then president Jacob Zuma.
Mara Louw and Johnny Clegg. Picture: Media24
Clegg received the order “for his excellent contribution to and achievement in the field of bridging African traditional music with other music forms, promoting racial understanding among racially divided groups in South Africa under difficult apartheid conditions, working for a non-racial society and being an outstanding spokesperson for the release of political prisoners”.
Such was his appeal that during the 1980s and early 1990s there was no cup final worth its mettle which did not feature Clegg and Juluka, or later Savuka.
One of his most memorable performances was during the 1984 Mainstay Cup final between Iwisa Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates at Ellis Park Stadium.
His song Ibhola Lethu became the signature tune for the Mainstay Cup and remains an iconic piece of music to this day.
In his own words, all Clegg ever wanted to do was play music and be free. He is free now, one with the soil of his beloved Mzansi, a scatterling of Africa.
– Mukurukuru Media