Johnny Clegg, South African singer and activist, dies aged 66

South African musician Johnny Clegg dies at 66 from pancreatic cancer

The South African singer and songwriter Johnny Clegg, one of the few white artists to openly confront the apartheid government in the late 1970s and 1980s, has died aged 66, his agent has said.

He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015.

The Grammy-nominated singer, sometimes called the “White Zulu”, died peacefully at home in Johannesburg on Tuesday with his family, according to Clegg’s manager, Roddy Quin.

“Johnny leaves deep footprints in the hearts of every person that considers himself or herself to be an African,” Quinn told AFP.

South Africa’s government paid tribute to Clegg’s achievements on Twitter, saying his music could “unite people across the races and bring them together as a community”.

“Clegg has made an indelible mark in the music industry and the hearts of the people,” they said.

In his early teens in Johannesburg, he came across Zulu migrant workers playing street guitar and started taking lessons. It was an introduction into Zulu language, music and dance that set the course for his life.

Clegg continued to learn from these men who had left their homes to find work in the city but kept their traditions alive, visiting their barracks-like hostels and taking part in their dancing competitions.

“I felt like an immigrant,” he told the New York Times in 1990. “The migrant workers were themselves immigrants, so we had a similar feeling of marginality in the city … That was emotionally something I could relate to.”

He took his passion to Wits University where he studied anthropology with a focus on Zulu music and dance, staying on as a lecturer.

Clegg’s reputation as a “Zulu guitarist” led to a meeting with self-taught street musician Sipho Mchunu, another migrant worker, and the pair went on to found the band Juluka, which means “sweat” in Zulu.

Challenging apartheid laws that prohibited mixed-race performances in public venues, they played at universities, church halls and migrant hostels. They were subject to harassment from the authorities and sometimes arrest.

In 1979 they released their first album Universal Men, when Clegg turned professional.

Juluka’s music received little airplay in South Africa but reached large international audiences through 1982-1983 tours of Europe and North America. The song Scatterlings of Africa charted in England and France, where Clegg was particularly celebrated.

The 1987 hit Asimbonanga, a tribute to Nelson Mandela, who at the time had been imprisoned on Robben Island for over two decades, was one of the high points of a glittering career.

Clegg later recalled how he performed the song while on tour in Germany in 1997 and experienced a “huge shock” when Mandela, beaming and dancing, unexpectedly came out on stage behind him.

“It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world. And at peace with myself,” Mandela said to the audience. He asked Clegg to resume his performance and urged the audience to get up and dance.

“That was the pinnacle moment for me,” Clegg recalled. “It was just a complete and amazing gift from the universe.”

The group disbanded when Mchunu returned to his family farm in 1985 and Clegg formed Savuka, which means “we have risen”.

The band took up the successful path laid by Juluka, including Asimbonanga on the 1987 album Third World Child, but broke up after group member Dudu Zulu was shot dead in 1992.

After being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, Clegg cut down on his public performances while undergoing treatment, which won him a period of respite.

In late 2017, he embarked on a farewell tour called The Final Journey that took him to 12 cities in North America before circling back to Africa.

Speaking to AFP ahead of the tour, Clegg said it was a “kind of conclusion” to a journey that started when he was aged 14.

“It has been a rewarding career in so many aspects … to be able to unite people through song, especially at a time where it seemed impossible,” he said.

He has two sons with his wife, Jennifer, one of whom is popular rock musician Jesse Clegg.