Johnny Clegg's War on Apartheid: Samuel J. Friedman Reports - Rolling Stone
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Johnny Clegg’s War on Apartheid

Since he was 12 years old, South Africa’s best-known musician has been crossing the line that separates white from black

South African singer Johnny Clegg, Photo by Georges MERILLON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)South African singer Johnny Clegg, Photo by Georges MERILLON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Johnny Clegg in 1988.

Georges Merillon/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

This story originally ran in the March 22nd, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone.

It was a January in Johannesburg of events unimaginable only months earlier. Merchants in the Saturday flea market hawked T-shirts celebrating the release of seven leaders of the outlawed African National Congress. The New Nation, a radical paper whose editor had been interned and whose publication had been forbidden in the recent past could be found even at the Holiday Inn. Reports abounded that Nelson Mandela, the symbol of resistance to apartheid, would be freed within weeks to begin negotiations with the government that had imprisoned him a quarter century earlier.

And Johnny Clegg, perhaps the most popular musician his nation has given to the world, took the stage at the Standard Bank Arena. He led a racially diverse band called Savuka — Zulu for “we have arisen” — through a fusion of African tribal music, black township jive and British folk rock for an audience of all races. While an integrated show was no longer the provocation it had once been, toward the end of the concert, Clegg introduced a new song that the regime even in its relatively lenient mood had banned from the airwaves.

His voice launched into a Zulu chant, and those few listeners fluent in the language knew that within the lovely, lilting tones, Clegg was describing young black revolutionaries on the march with guns and bazookas, the image of a racial apocalypse that haunts this land. Then he switched into English, and the verses built into a chorus, a chorus that was an anthem of resolution. “One man, one vote,” he sang. “It’s the only way.”

The activists of all hues who had waged what often seemed a futile campaign against apartheid hardly needed to hear Clegg’s message. It was precisely the audience before him—affluent, educated, overwhelmingly white—that he wanted most to stir. And in so doing, he was culminating an odyssey both aesthetic and political that had begun only months after Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life in prison.

One evening when Johnny Clegg was twelve years old, the lonely and gentle son of a twice-broken home, his mother sent him to buy a loaf of bread. Beneath the street lights outside the store stood a black man playing a guitar, and the sound of his strings halted the boy. Something in that African song reminded Johnny of the Celtic music he adored, adored because he associated it with the English father who had vanished from his life before his first birthday.

“Please teach me,” Johnny asked.

The black man nodded yes.

After school the next day, with his mother still safely at her job, Johnny went to the apartment building where the musician worked as a janitor. The superintendent, an Afrikaner, asked the boy’s purpose and, learning what it was, ordered him to return home. Johnny retreated out the door, then sneaked to the servants’ entrance and scaled the fire escape to his new teacher’s room.

His name, Johnny now learned, was Charlie Mzila. He was a Zulu. He was a warrior. He was a migrant worker, forced by laws Johnny had only begun to comprehend to live apart from his family eleven months each year. The room smelled of sweat and a paraffin stove. Pictures of saints hung on the wall. Beneath the mattress, Mzila stored what was most dear, the traditional tribal machete and fighting sticks and a photo album whose every snapshot had been bent and smudged. Mzila seated Johnny on the one chair — a cardboard box covered with newspaper — and played songs in Zulu of the itinerant’s life. With their minor keys and 6/8 time signatures, they were jaunty and mournful all at once.

“It was as if some very powerful disclosure was being made to me,” Clegg recalls, “and I didn’t understand it. And that freaked me out. Those songs seemed to be from another place, another time. And yet they were discussing something about the world. There was a secret locked in there. And then I knew that I had to know that secret.”

Mzila taught Johnny the Zulu language and dances. He led him into gambling dens and migrant hostels and the township bars called shebeens, all the places where racial pride refused to be crushed by the passbook laws, which rendered blacks aliens in their own land, and by the utterance a thousand times a day of “Yes, me baas.” Johnny asked his mother for a Gallo-tone guitar, the cheapest brand made but the one that for its economy had become central to modern Zulu music. For three months he made the backstairs pilgrimage to Mzila’s room for lessons, until one clay the superintendent burst through the door, drunk.

“Out,” he shouted, grabbing Johnny by the shirt. “Get out. Never come back.” Mzila shoved the man away from Johnny, and the man shoved Mzila back. And then the Zulu warrior did the perilous, the almost unthinkable: He turned his fists on a white man, an Afrikaner, his baas, and drove him from the room in defeat. And in the super’s wake hovered the unspoken presentiment of dismissal, arrest, exile.

“It was a terrible thing,” Clegg remembers. “All I’d wanted to do was play music. And yet I was terribly moved. Because this was the first time anyone older than me had stood up for me. Just to be with me.”

All he had wanted was to play music. All he had wanted was the approval of a father, who would initiate him into the mysteries of manhood. It had been that simple. It had had nothing to do with anything as abstract as politics. But Johnny Clegg was white and Charlie Mzila was black and South Africa was South Africa, where in matters of race nothing was simple and everything was political, inescapably and tortuously political. Others, to be sure, could cross the line and then withdraw behind it, withdraw into the protective laager that is the governing metaphor of white South Africa. They could love their black nannies and their black houseboys and grow up to call them “kaffirs” and march with the army through their townships. It was an emotional dynamic that tore one apart, if one happened to have both white skin and a working conscience.

Johnny Clegg, however, did not enjoy the option of rejection. By age 12, he had been sundered not only from his father but from his stepfather as well. He had lived in three countries, attended six schools. He only felt at peace camping in the bush, sighting birds in the parks and singing and dancing with Charlie Mzila and the other migrants. Then as now he considered himself a “marginal man,” and in their marginality he found fellowship. He could hardly imagine where such an elemental human instinct would ultimately lead.

“I don’t want to be the Great White Hope, but I want to give people hope, realistic hope,” Clegg says.

At the age of 36, touring the world in support of his 13th record, Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World, Johnny Clegg is far more than a proven international star. He plays two pivotal roles in his beleaguered nation: In one guise, like David Byrne in American popular culture, he acts as the intelligent and sincere interlocutor of African culture for white listeners; in the second he is akin to the Czech Vaclav Havel, the dissident artist who looms as statesman for the nation reborn. Beneath its glossy musical surface, Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World amounts to Clegg’s most direct, most impassioned work in an 18-year career, a chronicle of violence, betrayal and flickering hope. A man made this record, but events made this man.

“I don’t want to be the Great White Hope,” Clegg says, “but I want to give people hope, realistic hope. Black people don’t have to be told about one man, one vote. Black people don’t need to be told about searching for an African identity. But white people, especially young white people, do. I understand their fears. I understand their problems. I try to make them feel this is their time — they are the ones who for better or worse will make an impact. I try to tell them not to be victims of history. Because they’re excited by the prospect of change but not sure they can deal with it. There’s a lot of paralysis to overcome. What they see is the picture of something that when we started out was of the future. And now it can be the present.”

(MANDATORY CREDIT Ebet Roberts/Getty Images) UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Photo of Johnny CLEGG; Performing on stage (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

Johnny Clegg performs in 1990. Photo credit: Ebet Roberts/Getty Images

Ebet Roberts/Getty Images

The police surged into the Wemmer Hostel, a brick barracks for 3,000 migrants, on a routine search for stolen goods and workers without passbooks. They found thirty or forty men dancing and humming in a space cleared between the bunks and barely lit by one bulb. Only when they herded the group outdoors did the officers notice that one of its members was a white teenager, his tank top and khakis augmented by Zulu beads and sandals.

“Wat gaan heir aan?” one officer demanded of 14-year-old Johnny Clegg, incredulous. “What’s going on here?”

“I’m dancing here,” he began to answer before the isango, the dance leader, stepped forward to speak for him, according to tribal protocol. The leader proceeded to tell the officers that the white boy had been dancing with this troupe for a long time. The Zulu men, in fact, had given Johnny the nickname Madlebe, from the word for the large earrings Zulu men wear. This so incensed the police they dragged Johnny to their car. The migrants assumed he was being taken to jail, though the officers decided instead to bring him to his mother.

“This is your son,” one told Muriel Pienaar when she opened her door ten minutes later. “Do you know where we found him?”

“Must’ve been one of the hostels.”

“You mean to say you allow him?”

“Why, yes. He’s studying Zulu dancing.”

“Do you know how dangerous those places are?” the officer persisted. “There are weapons. There are drugs. We have four or five murders there every weekend. We don’t go in there without a gun on.”

“It’s a bit different for Johnny,” Pienaar explained sweetly. “He’s their friend.”

“Your son is crazy,” the officer concluded. “You must look after him.” Turning to leave, he added, “And what he’s doing is illegal.”

That Pienaar remained calm should have been no surprise. She and Johnny had been called worse than crazy by her own mother, a Lithuanian Jew who had settled in Rhodesia “Oy, vay,” she said on her periodic visits to Johannesburg. “What will become of him, running around barefoot with his shvartzer friends? What a disgrace. What sort of mother lets him grow wild?”

Yet it was largely because her own parents had discouraged her musical ambitions that Pienaar so nurtured those of her son. How could she censor his curiosity about black life while promoting Columbia’s jazz and pop records in her work? Before Johnny’s stepfather moved away, he had filled the house with African music and contempt for apartheid. And when the family had lived in Zambia for two years in the early Sixties, just as that nation was gaining its independence, Johnny had attended an integrated school. Racial isolation was simply at odds with his most intimate and formative moments.

But the older Johnny grew, the less the authorities saw his hostel evenings as harmlessly perverse. He was arrested more than a dozen times, and Pienaar grew afraid they might both be deported. (She carried a Rhodesian passport, Johnny a British one, since he had been born in Manchester.) Short of trying to halt Johnny’s visits to Wemmer, she forced him to carry a letter from the South African Folk Music Association assuring the police that his business there was strictly apolitical. The Zulus at the hostel, however, could hardly have been prouder. Going to jail was part of coming of age; jail was called uvela emadobeni, “the place of men.”

By day, it was true, Johnny was forced to inhabit segregated schools and cinemas and parks, and he was bound by his late teens for the University of the Witwatersrand, where he would receive an education available to virtually no blacks. Yet it was not in any of those settings that his political and musical enlightenment truly commenced. It was in the migrant hostel — the institution that was, paradoxically, integral to both apartheid and the vibrant urban African culture.

The hostel system was designed to supply white South Africa with a permanent pool of cheap black labor that itself would be deprived of the benefits of permanence. A family’s breadwinner needed a work permit, which by law expired on a regular basis; the rest of the family remained hundreds of miles away in the tribal “homeland.” So with the push of joblessness and the pull of blood, every migrant had to leave the city every year or two, uncertain whether he would be permitted to return.

At the same time, however, the hostels gave birth to a distinctively citified culture, one that subverted the apartheid ideal. The musical instruments of the hostels and townships were ones borrowed and adapted from their white rulers — a concertina with its buttons rearranged to suit African scales, a guitar restrung to carry bass and treble lines, a penny whistle turned from toy into woodwind. The choral music lately popularized by Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Paul Simon’s Graceland grew from the encounter of African worshipers and the Christian church. So as he learned the tribal dances, Johnny also learned the urban music, the kwela and mbaqanga, and came to hear between the bars a language of perseverance and resistance.

If he had achieved Zulu manhood with his maiden arrest, then Johnny accomplished musical brotherhood the evening not long after when he first met Sipho Mchunu. Sipho was only twelve then, newly arrived in Johannesburg from Natal and serving without passbook or work permit as a white family’s gardener. He had heard tales back home of a white who spoke and sang and danced like a tribesman, but he did not believe them. “White man playing Zulu,” he muttered. “Must be wrong.”

Then one evening as he played guitar on a street corner, Sipho heard someone whistle in Zulu fashion. When he looked up, all he saw was a white boy on a bike. Then the boy spoke in fanakalo, the migrant’s pidgin mix of Zulu and English, inviting him home to take tea. Once there, Johnny set up a tape recorder, the first Sipho had ever seen, and asked his guest to sing. Then he rewound the tape and played it back. “This boy has umlingo,” Sipho thought. “This boy has magic.”

Soon Sipho took on Charlie Mzila’s role of musical guide, but he also became a friend in a way Mzila as a father figure necessarily could not. Summoning each other by whistling, the two boys repaired after dark to parks and golf courses to practice, and sometimes they camped overnight outside the city. Passersby called Johnny a kaffirboetjie, a “nigger brother,” and the police regularly broke up their rehearsals. Six months into their partnership, when the two traveled to Sipho’s birthplace, the authorities barred Johnny from entering the homeland of KwaZulu, shipping him back to Johannesburg by bus.

Yet neither legal racism nor personal scorn could pry them apart. We didn’t care about politics, because we didn’t know about politics,” Mchunu recalls. “I was just I happy with a friend.” By the early 1970s, Sipho and Johnny had begun performing as a street-corner duo and even finding paying work in the few venues that would tolerate an integrated team — a mission school here, a miners’ camp there, the living-room “club” run by two folk singers named Des and Dawn.

In 1976 the two recorded their first single. They pieced together uniforms at the Saturday flea market, learned and arranged Zulu songs and started to write their own. One of Johnny’s first was the bittersweet internal monologue of a migrant returning home after his months away. Then, in 1979, Johnny and Sipho formed a full band named Juluka, Zulu for “sweat.”

Folkish in tone, painfully earnest in intent, Juluka aroused remarkable controversy solely by being the first racially mixed band in South Africa. For in 1965 the government had adopted laws protecting “cultural purity” by balkanizing the media not merely into black and white but into Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Sotho and similar sectors. At almost any white setting except the Witwatersrand campus, a stronghold of English liberalism, Juluka’s shows were likely to be forcibly canceled. Their songs were barred from the government’s English station for having Zulu lyrics and from its Zulu station for having English lyrics. From time to time, a spectator would grow so incensed at Clegg, the kaffirboetjie, that he would leap onstage to take a swing at him. Even Johnny’s best white friend told him he had no right to write about the black lives, lives he could not possibly understand.

LONDON - 1st JUNE: South African band Juluka featuring Johnny Clegg (2nd from left) posed in London in June 1983. (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

South African band Juluka, featuring Johnny Clegg (second from left), posed in London in June 1983. Photo credit: Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

As if to contradict that friend, Juluka found a devoted audience in the townships like Soweto, Sebokeng and Alexandra. Outside of Johannesburg, the solution to censorship was simpler: drive down the dirt lanes, announce the show out of the windows of a moving van, set up in a tumbledown municipal hall and start playing. Juluka sold at least half of its early records to black listeners, and several of the albums went gold with sales exceeding 20,000. Three Zulu clans formally inducted Johnny, and when his son Jesse was born years later, Clegg was married in a Zulu ceremony to his wife, Jenny, a former dancer. (Zulu practice is not to perform a marriage until the wife has proven her fertility.) To this day men and women from the townships will hail Clegg not by his own name but with the salutation “Juluka!”

But the plight of the South African moderate is to be flayed from both flanks of the racial divide. And in the aftermath of the 1976 Soweto uprising, the inauguration of the modem era of resistance, Juluka endured enormous pressure from black intellectuals and activists. The Black Consciousness philosophy articulated by Steve Biko, like America’s black nationalism, instructed sympathetic whites to work solely among those of their own color. In any racially integrated enterprise, however admirable its goals, white presence would retard black development. Only when the races could meet as equals — however many decades in the future that might be — would they meet at all.

“They talking politics all the time,” Sipho Mchunu recalls. “Some people they come to me, say, ‘You’re wasting your time. Why you play with this white guy? You can play with your own.’ I said, ‘What I started I cannot give up. Johnny is a friend.’ “

“There was an argument I shouldn’t sing in Zulu, because English was the international language,” says Clegg. “There was criticism that what we were doing was ‘conservative.’ But I said culture by itself isn’t liberal’ or ‘conservative.’ It’s what you do with it. And I wasn’t interested in struggling against anything. I was interested in establishing an African identity.”

Here, then, was a new definition of marginality for a man obsessed with transcending it. The songs Clegg wrote about itinerants took on another level of metaphor amid the increasing insurrection. In context, if not in original design, they became the cri de coeur of all the decent South Africans whose good intentions appeared irrelevant, whose democratic dreams seemed obsolete. As Clegg put it in one 1982 composition: “They are the scatterlings of Africa/Each uprooted one/On the road to Phelamanga/Where the world began/I love the scatterlings of Africa/Each and every one/In their hearts a burning hunger/Beneath the copper sun.”

Juluka disbanded in 1985 when Sipho Mchunu, tired of the road, returned to KwaZulu to tend his family’s livestock. And in some respects that was a blessing, because when State President P.W. Botha declared a state of emergency the following year, the entire idea of making music seemed pointless. By the end of the decade, some 5000 South Africans had perished, either in army assaults or internecine black violence, and another 35,000 had been detained by the authorities. The resistance, in turn, aimed to render the townships ungovernable, and any band that dared schedule a performance would find its crowd stoned and its equipment burned. There was no time for concerts, the comrades said, there was only time for the struggle.

Whatever distance Clegg as an artist had tried to maintain from politics closed with a crash. The Botha regime, adroitly exploiting tribal rivalries, used the Zulu nation that Clegg considered his own to divide, politically and physically, the black resistance. In the vicious intra-racial bloodshed that followed (and that continues in Natal), Zulu migrants whom Clegg recognized from Juluka’s audiences were slain by the score. Then a white social worker from Durban, whom Clegg had known since she housed him and Mchunu during the 1978 Natal Folk Festival, was seized by the Special Branch, the notorious political police.

Charged with aiding the African National Congress (ANC), the woman disappeared into a series of prisons, where she was placed in solitary confinement and interrogated without cease. Clegg joined a detainees’ support committee, sent his friend letters and tapes, tried to locate her in the security labyrinth. Three months after her arrest, the friend was released without explanation. Alive and physically unscarred, she was luckier than most. But Clegg was nearly shattered.

“I had a sense of hopelessness,” he says. “I felt paralyzed. Desperate. There were these two opposing factions — the securocrats and the young black militants — neither of whom gave any quarter. There’s always been a hidden, invisible middle ground in South Africa of connections between people and cultures. That was being incinerated. Music was the most effective way I could work out my feelings. It was a way of trying to understand what I was experiencing.”

The sidemen Clegg assembled to help him — including two Juluka alumni, percussionist Dudu Zulu and drummer Derek De Beer — evolved into Savuka. The songs Clegg wrote and recorded became the band’s first record, Third World Child, a despairing personal history of the times. “Berlin Wall” told of the barrier the government erected around the New Brighton township, near Port Elizabeth. The title song was the caustic testimony of an African who had given up trying to assimilate: “They said I should/Learn to speak a little bit of English/Maybe practise birth control/Keep away from controversial politics/So to save my Third World soul … I can speak a little bit of English/I am the seed that has survived/I am the fire that has been woken/I am a Third World child.”

What hope existed in the album, and in Clegg’s soul, was of an almost abject sort, typified by the song “Asimbonanga.” The title translated as “We have not seen him.” Against a background of choral lamentation, Clegg invoked the names of Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge, Neil Aggett — all those leaders, three dead and one imprisoned, who he believed could have healed the nation.

“Apartheid isn’t just something outside,” Clegg says of the song. “It’s something in the brain. It’s something that divides you from a greater whole. For me, Mandela was a link pin toward wholeness. He held the key to bringing together different groups, to bringing unity. Not a cynical political unity, but a psychic, spiritual, intellectual, cultural unity. Because apartheid fragments all those levels.”

Apartheid also banned “Asimbo-nanga” from government television and radio, as it banned a total of five songs from Savuka’s three records. Yet the British Musicians’ Union similarly barred Clegg in 1988 from performing at the London Freedomfest concert honoring Mandela. This ironic action, the union claimed, was necessary to uphold the cultural boycott of South Africa.

“Asimbonanga,” however, reached Number One in France, and Clegg and Savuka achieved gold or platinum designation for Third World Child and its successor Shadow Man in South Africa and several European countries. The band played the Ivory Coast show of Amnesty International’s Human Rights Now! Tour and performed before a crowd of 500,000 at an S.O.S. Racisme concert in France. The Oscar-winning film Rain Man featured a remixed version of “Scatterlings of Africa.” As Clegg’s music metamorphosed from Juluka’s folkloric stylings to a more accessible interweaving of Celtic and African influences — one thinks at turns of Sting, Peter Gabriel and Richard Thompson — Clegg found himself last spring in Los Angeles recording the album intended to secure him stardom in the United States. None of his four American releases, which included two of Juluka’s records, had sold more than 100,000 copies.

It was a time of reasoned optimism for Clegg about not only his career but his country. As he watched the democracy movement unfold in China and glasnost sweep the Eastern bloc, he saw the paradigms for freedom in South Africa. The album, he decided, would be entitled Revolution With a Smile.

That changed several weeks into the sessions. The telephone rang one morning in Clegg’s bedroom. The voice was that of the friend who had been detained.

“Johnny,” she said, “the most terrible thing has happened. They shot David. David Webster.”

Clegg hardly needed the surname to know. Webster had been Clegg’s mentor from the moment they had met 18 years earlier at the University of the Witwatersrand. Webster was teaching an anthropology course on Zulu culture, and Clegg stuck out as the one freshman fluent in the language. With Webster’s encouragement, he earned his degree in anthropology and went on to become a junior lecturer in the field. Webster was also a political maverick who had gravitated from conventional liberalism to Marxism and who had been instrumental in founding the United Democratic Front; a coalition of opposition groups that the government subsequently banned.

It was impossible for Clegg to picture this man as the woman on the telephone described him — struck as he strolled home from jogging, bleeding to death in his wife’s arms. No, perhaps it was all too easy to conceive, and that was far more disturbing. At the time of Webster’s death, Clegg would later learn, he was finishing a history of political assassination in South Africa. He himself, it seemed clear, was the victim of one.

“I felt like I’d been axed, like a cleaver had come into my brain,” Clegg recalls. “I was seized once again by this fucking paralysis, an impotence, a real fright. In a death like this, you realize the contingency of history, the reality of existing in chaos. We have a superficial web of order we place over things. This smashed my web.”

Clegg flew to Johannesburg for Webster’s funeral, and when he returned to Los Angeles, he found himself almost unable to function. If David Webster could be shot, then who else? Clegg was already used to being arrested, harassed, spied upon. Even his mother’s phone was tapped — she joked that every morning at ten she could hear the reels being changed. But now no illusions remained about the protection white skin and a high profile afforded a foe of apartheid.

For three weeks, Clegg could not write a word. On television he watched the slaughter of Tiananmen Square. He refused to let Jesse outside the house. When he went to the goofy boardwalk at Venice, he wanted to cry. “I felt lost in the world,” he says. “I didn’t trust the universe anymore.”

Trying to salvage both the album and Clegg’s spirits, producer Hilton Rosenthal hastily arranged a short European tour. The evening after the final show, Clegg flew to New York, where he was to deliver the keynote address at the New Music Seminar. As he crossed the night sky, he scribbled notes on his topic, the history of progressive music in South Africa, a history otherwise undocumented and largely forgotten. He drew from his memory the tragicomic tableaux of musicians evading apartheid — a white band performing for a black audience from behind a curtain; a bassist wearing a gorilla costume so police could not determine his race; a black sideman joining a white band by appearing onstage with a bucket and mop beside him, since one janitor was permitted in each segregated venue.

The more Clegg wrote, the more absurd he felt. Had these events really taken place? Or did they exist only in his imagination? And even if they had occurred, what did it matter? Amid detention and emergency and sidewalk assassination, who cared?

Yet as he spoke the next afternoon, and the audience listened, Clegg felt lifted by some small catharsis. Perhaps in declaiming this history of persecution, he had made the musicians’ sacrifices not less real, but more. He knew then he would be able to continue. “There’s no going back,” he says. “I can’t stand still; I’ve done it. I can only move forward.”

Shorn of naiveté but not an existential need to believe, Clegg renamed the album Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World. The first song he wrote was “One (Hu)’Man, One Vote.” He dedicated it to the memory of David Webster.

When Johnny Clegg drove up to Jabu Ngwenya’s house in Soweto several weeks ago, a compact car with three young black men coasted beside him. A few words were exchanged, only pleasantries, but each party understood their meeting was not coincidental. Clegg and Ngwenya worked together in the South African Musicians’ Alliance, a group representing artists opposed to apartheid, and the men in the car were almost certainly police informants. The whole point of their surveillance was that it be blatant

Even more than Clegg, Ngwenya was accustomed to being observed, and much more. By the age of thirty-four, he had been detained ten times for political activities, and on one occasion he had been held for eleven months. Twice in 1987 the Special Branch had broken down the doors of his simple brick home and torn apart its three rooms looking for him in vain. The front of the house still bore two bullet holes from assassination attempts. Under terms of a banning order, Ngwenya could not leave his dwelling from 6:00 p.m. until 5:30 a.m.

The musicians’ alliance had nettled the regime from its beginnings in late 1986. An advertisement assailing the state of emergency and endorsing a democratic, integrated future was denounced by the Department of Information. Army troops equipped with tear gas and attack dogs disrupted a benefit concert in Soweto for families with children in detention. A March 1989 show that would have been the largest popular music event in South African history — dubbed the Human Rainbow and featuring bands from a variety of racial and ethnic groups — was banned when the alliance refused to supply authorities song lyrics in advance.

Photo taken on March 27, 1989 in Keate's Drift shows Johnny Clegg (C), leader of the pop group Savuka, in a traditionnal Zulu during his wedding with Jennifer Bartlett. (Photo by Trevor SAMSON / AFP) (Photo credit should read TREVOR SAMSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Johnny Clegg (center), leader of the pop group Savuka, in a traditionnal Zulu during his wedding with Jennifer Bartlett on March 27, 1989 in Keate’s Drift, South Africa. Photo credit: Trevor Samson/AFP/Getty Images

Trevor Samson/AFP/Getty Images

None of this deterred the alliance, not even the slaying of Webster, one of its trustees. It had become the most direct expression of Clegg’s social conscience, of his burgeoning need to seek change by more than music alone. And on this Saturday afternoon he and Ngwenya were bound for a squatters’ district whose residents the alliance intended to help.

The place was called Mshenguville, Mshengu being the Zulu praise name of the man who manages the land, Ephraim Tshabalala. Tshabalala was famous as one of Soweto’s few millionaires, the owner of several gas stations and garages. Mshenguville, too, was one of his enterprises, a flood plain he had leased in parcels to impoverished families, many illegally arrived from the homelands. Perhaps 10,000 people now lived in shanties of cardboard and tin, their roofs held in place by loose bricks and bald tires. The air stank of stagnant water, rotting garbage, cooking fires. The only toilets for the multitude were half a dozen Port-o-Sans. The only toys for the children were carts cobbled from scrap wire with old cans for wheels.

And this misery was what the people of Mshenguville were desperately afraid of losing. Tshabalala, together with township politicians, wanted to clear the land for stores. The families who had felt secure with their plot and shack would be shunted to vacant land on the other side of sprawling Soweto, putting them twice as far from their jobs in Johannesburg. The alliance, Clegg and Ngwenya thought, could hold a concert to raise money for the squatters to hire a lawyer.

“We Johnny usethanishipi namuhlanje,” one teenager called. “Hey, Johnny, you’re in the township today.”

“Juluka,” others added.

in A crowd followed him and Ngwenya down the muddy lanes. They stopped outside one hut where a shirtless man repaired a radio without tools. An old woman, seeing the crowd from behind, asked suspiciously what was going on. Told of Clegg and the benefit concert, she said, “Maybe what you’re doing can rescue us from living like pigs.”

The words clawed at Clegg as he drove back into Johannesburg, where he was nearly late for the last show of his South African tour. The identical brick houses of the township soon gave way to mansions with swimming pools and tennis courts. The treeless dirt fields of Soweto, now safely hidden on the far side of a hill, were replaced by gardens of protea and jacaranda. Everywhere stood the black bodies that had built this paradise — selling newspapers, carrying gardening tools in canvas bags, digging sewer trenches, giving white infants their bottles.

For all the tentative promise in South Africa in January, a great deal had not changed. Three white police officers beat to death a black constable. One of three wings sat empty in all-white Johannesburg Hospital while Baragwanath, in Soweto, delivered children in hallways. The headlines one morning on the letters page of The Citizen included WHY ALWAYS PICK ON US? and WHITE MAN CAN FEEL PROUD. (Even the significant reforms that State President F.W. de Klerk announced in February, including lifting the ban on the ANC and United Democratic Front — followed by the release from prison of Nelson Mandela — stopped short of bringing racial integration and participatory democracy to the nation.)

“I feel removed from this concert,” Clegg muttered as he neared the Standard Bank Arena, where the opening band would begin in five minutes. “The contradictions of this place don’t let up.”

AS THE SOUND OF A TALKING DRUM poured from the speakers, before the lights even rose on Johnny Clegg and Savuka, the capacity crowd shrieked with an abandon that bordered on Beatlemania. There were black and colored and Indian listeners among the 6000, but with a ticket price of seven dollars, relatively high for South Africa, most were whites in surf shirts and designer jeans. They would not have seemed alien in Orange County, except that when one looked closer, especially at those nearest the stage, one saw a banner declaring, WE ARE ONE WORLD, and a T-shirt emblazoned with the ANC Freedom Charter and another bearing a photograph of David Webster.

They waved their arms in time with the choral chant of “Asimbonanga,” and they offered clenched fists to the beat of “Berlin Wall,” and they burst into delirium when Clegg unstrapped his guitar and stepped back from the microphone to dance with Dudu Zulu. The men dropped to their haunches, spun on their heels, arms outstretched for balance; they stood straight and then kicked each leg high into the air; and then they fell backward as if in rapture. Theirs was a warrior dance of the Zulus, and together, black and white, they had slain the enemy.

In the crowd boys with baggy shorts and tank tops mimicked their moves. Girlfriends jumped into the air for a glimpse of the stage. And what did it mean? What did their joy mean? Their clenched fists and swaying arms? For gestures so direct, their meaning remained elusive. Were these young white inheritors simply riding in that moment the forbidden pleasure of an African beat? Or were they truly attending Clegg and his message, accepting an empowerment that meant surrendering their privilege?

“We all want change,” said James Kamp, a thirty-eight-year-old supplier of engineering equipment, after the show. “But not so fast as Clegg says. It’ll be a bloody blood bath. They’ll run amok. They’ll chase us out of our homes.

“Why not one man, one vote?” said Bernd Globisch, an 18-year-old high-school student. “As long as the minority isn’t oppressed.”

“What he says about one man, one vote is right,” said Ashley Cohen, a twenty-three-year-old computer-systems manager. “But it’s scary, because it’s different and it’s unknown.”

Clegg himself has no illusions, but he does have some faith. There are, after all, only four destinations for a white in the land of apartheid — faith, racism, exile or madness. Faith has cost some their freedom, others their lives. Clegg has been fortunate enough to survive essentially unscathed and to embody finally a spirit in which others can invest their own faith.

“I’ve fought against being seen as a symbol, a messiah, who could never deliver the goods,” Clegg says. “So I’ve been pragmatic. But if I’m someone’s hero, that’s wonderful. It’s wonderful to play music that does more than give people a good rime. Every time I come offstage, I feel, ‘Another nail in the coffin.’ “


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