South Africans mourn ‘White Zulu’ Jonny Clegg

Tributes poured in Wednesday for anti-apartheid singer Johnny Clegg, who has died aged 66, with politicians, musicians and friends lauding the “White Zulu” for building bridges in a divided nation.

“A beloved, inspirational and heroic voice has fallen silent and leaves all of us bereft of an exceptional compatriot and icon of social cohesion and non-racialism,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said.

British-born Clegg was a pioneer — blending Zulu rhythms from his adopted South Africa with Western styles, all while defying apartheid segregation laws.

“We are blessed to have seen him… We will keep working for the country of his dreams,” the Nelson Mandela Foundation tweeted, describing Clegg as “a musical icon and a freedom fighter”.

AFP/File / François GUILLOT
British-born Jonny Clegg blended Zulu rhythms from his adopted South Africa with Western styles, defying apartheid segregation laws
Clegg mastered the language, culture and high kicks of Zulu dance, forming multi-racial bands in defiance of the race-separating laws of the apartheid-era government which censored his work.

Among his best-known tracks was “Asimbonanga”, Zulu for “We have not seen him”. It was released in 1987 following the declaration of a state of emergency by the apartheid government.

The song paid tribute to Nelson Mandela — then in jail — and was outlawed because any reference to the anti-apartheid leader was illegal.

It became an anthem for the anti-apartheid struggle.

After a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, Clegg passed away Tuesday surrounded by family at his home in Johannesburg.

“He was just a gift from God,” said Sipho Mchunu, co-founder of Clegg’s first band “Juluka”, formed when Clegg was only 17.

“He was more than my brother… My heart is broken,” Mchunu told local radio station, 702.

Senegalese music star Youssou N’Dour wrote on Facebook that he was “very sad” to hear of Clegg’s death.

“He made his mark on the world forever with his bold anti-apartheid struggle and we will be eternally grateful for his song ‘Asimbonanga’.”

— Highest Honour —

At the height of apartheid, Clegg’s politically charged music was seen as helping bridge South Africa’s racial divide.

In 1991 the French government made him a Knight of Arts and Letters. He became one of the first South Africans to be honoured by Queen Elizabeth with the Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2015.

Most recently, President Ramaphosa bestowed on him the National Order of Ikhamanga for bridging African traditional music with other music forms.

AFP/File / Bertrand GUAY
After a four-year battle with pancreatic cancer, Clegg passed away Tuesday surrounded by family at his home in Johannesburg
“If u think Johnny Clegg is just a white guy that could speak Zulu then you clearly don’t know what the man did for the arts & the doors he was able to open for fellow artists,” fan Thabane Ndamase-Thabethe Tweeted.

Clegg’s other hits include “Impi” and “Scatterlings of Africa” (1986), “The Crossing” (1993) and “Great Heart” (1987).

His album “Heat, Dust and Dreams”, made with the group Savuka, earned a Grammy nomination in 1993.

Clegg studied anthropology and combined his studies with music. He lectured on music and dance at the universities of the Witwatersrand and Natal.

Fans across the globe shared their condolences and memories on social media, with many saying he had marked their upbringing.

“RIP Johnny Clegg. Your music was the sound of my childhood. #SAlegend,” Ryan White said in a tweet.

A private funeral service will be held but a service will also be arranged for the public to pay their respects, his manager Roddy Quin said in a statement.

Clegg is survived by his wife of 31 years, Jenny, and their two sons Jesse and Jaron.