BY BILLY SUTER
TRIBUTES have been pouring in for one of the most friendly, humble and legendary of South African musicians and anthropologists, Johnny Clegg, who yesterday afternoon (July 16) lost his battle with the pancreatic cancer he had been fighting since 2015. He was 66.
Clegg, who leaves his wife of 31 years, Jenny, and their sons Jesse and Jaron, died at his home in Johannesburg.
In a statement on behalf of the family, Johnny’s friend, who had also been his manager, Roddy Quinn, said: “His passing has left us numb and we request that the family’s privacy be respected during this trying time.
“The family will be holding a private funeral service and we ask you to please respect the family’s wishes. There will be a service for the public to pay their respects and the details will be announced in due course.”
Social media was flooded with messages from colleagues and fans as the news broke of the death of the man who gave the world such hits as Scatterlings of Afrika, Asimbonanga, Impi, The Crossing, African Sky Blue, Great Heart and December African Rain, among others.
A huge star locally and overseas – most notably in France, where he was called Le Zoulou Blanc (The White Zulu) – Clegg was born in England on June 7, 1953, and moved with his mother to South Africa at the age of six.
He enjoyed massive success with stylish Afro-pop mixing Zulu and English lyrics, both as a solo artist and with his world-renowned bands Juluka and Savuka.
He received a number of honorary doctorates and, in 1991, was awarded the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres (Knight of Arts and Letters) by the French Government.
Clegg’s musician son, Jesse Clegg, wrote via Twitter: “Thank you for the magical gifts you have given us and for creating a special place in your life for your family. You have inspired me both as a musician and as a man, and given me the tools to live a meaningful life.
He added: “I will miss you deeply and struggle to imagine a world without you.”
Musician David Kramer, writing on Facebook, said: “Johnny was a groundbreaking songwriter and performer. A cultural activist who pushed across boundaries as an artist. He developed an authentic voice and an original style by fusing maskandi and folk-rock influences that was acclaimed locally and internationally.
“During the apartheid years he provided an example of what we could be in South Africa when we most needed it. Hamba kahle.”
Claire Johnston of Mango Groove wrote: “Oh Johnny… what an inspiration! And what a loss. The wonderful thing is you will always be with us. Huge condolences to family and friends. Thank you for the music and the magic. You made the world a better place. RIP.”
Award-winning actress Fiona Ramsay said on Facebook; “So sad to hear Johnny Clegg has left all too soon. Thank you for your thoughts, your music, your humanity and your philosophy.
“As you fly I sing your words ‘eAfrika kukhala bangcwele’ and so you too become an angel, saint or ancestor. The contribution you made to your country and the world is invaluable and immeasurable.”
Musician Karen Zoid posted a wonderful tribute on Facebook: “I lift my voice with the chorus. To me he was also a guiding light. A star. To me he was also a sound mind. A hero. To me he was also a humble musician, a friend who visited me at my house and rode bicycles with me on the promenade.
“All morning long this past December we pretended to be in a bike gang. The best day ever! We reminisced about the BMX and Raleigh bicycles we played on in the streets as children and we shared stories of crazy adventures in music and life.
“We sat in a row on the curb and ate ice-cream. Jesse, Johnny, Karen and Ben. It felt like we were all about nine years old. But even Ben is already 12. ‘Die lewe is kort en rof’.
“To truly live is to love, is to suffer, is to rejoice, is to yearn. Humanity, the fragile prize. The beautiful life teaching of Johnny Clegg. We are here to love and support each other. That’s it.
“Rebel, intellectual, boy, sage. The fearless adventurer until the end. Surviving doesn’t mean you are strong. But you learn things through disasters.
“Johnny Clegg was born a fatherless little boy. Raised by a Jewish mother and an Afrikaner stepfather. Different. Unhappy camper at school. The teenager was running wild in the streets of Joburg. He once even cycled to Ermelo without telling his mother.
“Too white to be black and too black to be white. Never grey. Peter Pan follows the music that comes from deep down underground in the mines.
“The fighter learns how to dance. The dancer learns how to sing. The singer learns how to write. The writer learns how to speak. The speaker learns how to listen. The listener thinks for himself.
“It started by listening to you, Johnny, and it ends by listening to you:
‘You have to wash with the crocodile in the river
You have to swim with the sharks in the sea
You have to live with the crooked politician
Trust those things that you can never see’.
“To be brave you have to accept that you are always going to be a little bit scared. Thank you for proving this through how you lived your life over and over again.
“And of course, we are crying down here tonight. This place is going to suck without you! We are going to be sad for a very long time.
“The price you pay for love. But don’t worry. I will watch over Jesse and Jared (and Roddy!) for you. We are going to make the best of this shit show called life. Haha. Just like you did, Johnny. Damn we are going to miss you.”
“Rest in peace now. All my love and respect. Hugs to all who loved him.”
As for me, I will miss the man, his music, his smile, his earthiness, his wonderful stage energy.
Rest well, Johnny. A gentleman and an icon. One of the nicest people in showbiz.
And thank you for the music!