From activist to music legend: Three touching memories of Johnny Clegg

17 July 2019 - 11:02 By Unathi Nkanjeni

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

Renowned artist Johnny Clegg, fondly known among his legion of fans as "the white Zulu", became a household name in townships and rural areas at the height of apartheid in the 1980s, when he formed the band Jaluka with Sipho Mchunu.

He died at his Johannesburg home on Tuesday at the age of 66, after a five-year battle with pancreatic cancer. 

Here are three touching memories of Clegg:

Musical legacy

Clegg shot to fame in the US in the 1980s with his bands, Jaluka and Savuka. He was one of the few South African musicians whose albums made it on to the Billboard 200 Albums chart.

With Jaluka, his song Scatterlings of Africa  reached No 44 on the UK Singles Chart in February 1983. As Johnny Clegg and Savuka, it reached 75th spot in May 1987

The following year, the song was featured on the soundtrack to the Oscar-winning 1988 film Rain Man.

Asimbonanga, which he initially performed with Savuka, was dedicated to Nelson Mandela and became one of the most popular struggle songs of the 1980s. 

Feeling like a migrant

The Grammy-nominated artist was born in England and spent most of his childhood in SA, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Israel, attending six primary schools in five years.

In an interview with Mail & Guardian in 2010, Clegg said he always felt like a migrant.

"So when I met migrant workers – Zulu migrant workers – there was something about them that I intuitively connected with, because they were also establishing these tenuous connections with different places."

The activist

Clegg, who was also an anthropologist and activist, was praised by a number of local and international organisations for his contribution to society.

In 2012, he was awarded the Presidential Order of Ikhamanga. He has several honorary doctorates and awards, and, in 2015, was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire.

In 2018, the tribute song The Crossing saw a talented group of musicians and friends come together to raise money for education, while honouring Clegg.