Johnny Clegg, the “White Zulu” who fought apartheid
The musician had been particularly successful with “Asimbonanga”, a song dedicated to Nelson Mandela, in 1988. He succumbed to a cancer he had been fighting for several years. His music was an expression of his commitment and struggle against the white apartheid regime in South Africa.

South African musician Johnny Clegg, nicknamed the “White Zulu”, died of cancer on Tuesday, July 16, his manager announced to the public television channel SABC. “Johnny died peacefully today, surrounded by his family in Johannesburg (...), after a four-and-a-half year battle with cancer,” said Rodd Quinn. He was 66 years old. “He played a major role in South Africa in introducing people to different cultures and bringing them together,” the manager added in a statement. He showed us what it means to embrace other cultures without losing your identity. » 

Born in 1953 in the United Kingdom to a British father and a Zimbabwean mother, Johnny Clegg, a cabaret jazz singer, arrived in South Africa at the age of seven, where the white minority ruled over the black majority. He was introduced to local culture by his father-in-law, a journalist.

Johnny Clegg’s music was an expression of his commitment and fight against the apartheid regime. A black music, whose Zulu rhythms, which coexist with guitar, electric keyboard and accordion, expressed  fury, and the desire for revolution. In 1988, his song Asimbonanga “we haven’t seen him”, was dedicated to Nelson Mandela, who was then a prisoner and whose photos were banned.

Prohibited during apartheid

During the worst hours of the racist regime, his songs were banned. “We had to use a thousand and one tricks to get around the laws that prohibited any interracial rapprochement,” he told Agence France-Presse in 2017. This posture has often led to accusations of violating racial segregation laws. It was intolerable for the racist white government that one of its own should draw inspiration from Zulu history and culture.

Abroad, especially in France, Johnny Clegg found an audience. “People were very intrigued by our music,” he explained. In 1982, the release of his album Scatterlings of Africa propelled him to the top of the charts in the United Kingdom and France. With the global hit Asimbonanga (“we haven’t seen him”, in Zulu), he was recognized as a “political” artist.  The Pretoria regime banned the title.


A few years after the end of apartheid, the author and hero of this song, now free, found himself on stage in Frankfurt (Germany). While Johnny Clegg was singing Asimbonanga, there was a surprise. “I saw from the corner of my eye someone behind me who was going up on stage, dancing (...). It was Mandela! I didn’t even know he was there,” Johnny Clegg told the French weekly Le Nouvel Observateur. At the end of the song, Mandela spoke with his calm voice at the microphone: “It is music and dance that have put me at peace with the world. »

After another remission of pancreatic cancer diagnosed in 2015, he embarked two years later on a global farewell tour, the last tour he was able to complete, in 2018. 

RIP Mr. Zulu.

Source Le Monde avec AFP


Facebook Conversations

Disqus Conversations