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The Jewish Report Editorial

Singing our journey and hopes for SA

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“One of the greatest soundtracks of our lives has just ended,” wrote Arthur Goldstuck on Facebook on Tuesday night, just hours after legendary musician Johnny Clegg had died.
by PETA KROST MAUNDER | Jul 18, 2019

For many of us, Clegg was exactly that. His music, songs, and stories gave a particularly rich flavour to our lives as South Africans. And so, many of us have a “Johnny story” or two, be it a personal encounter or just the memories that his songs evoke.

Johnny Clegg epitomised the South Africa democratic dream, the ability to take black and white and make it beautiful together. This young Jewish boy, who enmeshed himself in the Zulu culture, brought the world a dancing, singing picture of South Africa that so many of us wanted to believe in. And, this was way back in the 1980s, in the dark days of apartheid.

Clegg chose to dismiss segregation in the country, bringing black and white culture together in his music, and showing us what was possible.

When I was starting out as a young reporter back in 1987, I interviewed Clegg, who referred to himself as a “crossover”. He told me, “I have always been fascinated with places in which people left evidence of their passing through.” As he leaves us this week, this is particularly poignant, as he leaves a musical legacy that will always save the space as one he passed through. He has left an indelible mark in our community, our lives, and our country.

His fascination back then with the lives of migrant workers in hostels, where he would go and dance, he told me, was based on his vision of “the terrible magnificence of the fight against impermanence”. This was another prophetic statement so long before his fight against cancer began.

He spoke about the migrant workers who he saw as “living with such intensity” and “leaving traces in the music and dance of the streets of Johannesburg”. Reading my story from back then, it was astonishing how he could have been speaking about himself, not just migrant workers.

Just as he spoke of his music being his journey, so too his music peppered so many of our journeys. I – like many of you – have loads of memories that are firmly attached to his music, and when I hear a particular song, it takes me back to a time, place, and people.

He spoke to me back then about the success of Juluka and Savuka as being the fact “that we deal with essential problems that have not yet been explored. Blacks and whites emotionally resonate with different elements of our music. We deal with relevant issues such as love, hate, fear, and horror.

“I come from a tradition that says, ‘I will survive no matter what you do to me, and better than that, I can still laugh at you’,” he said. And, laugh and live he did with so much passion.

How sad it is to read this now, because as much as he had a will to live, cancer eventually took him from us.

On stage you might have seen him as pure showman, but the person I interacted with on this and a few other occasions in my career was a deep thinker, who lived with passion and much contemplation and analysis. Crossing over into African culture was not done lightly. He was an anthropologist, and loved learning about other cultures and ways.

Interestingly, at the time he told me that he didn’t enjoy listening to music. “I suppose it’s because I’m constant playing my own. To relax, I would rather go and see a movie or rap with friends.”

He spoke of his love of Joburg, which he described as being “like an onion, with layers you can peel off. Each layer has something to it. There are certain layers I’m more at home with, those that for me have more magic like the seedy side of Joburg.”

In spite of being loved by so many around the world – and right here at home – he said he found it hard to relate to people seeing him “as a famous object that if they come close, some of it might rub off”, pointing out, “I’m a simple person, certainly not a star.”

He might have been a simple person, but his star will shine brightly forever in our skies. Clegg epitomised everything that we wanted – and still want – our country to be. We want to live in harmony with other communities, not necessarily absorbing their culture, but being able to enjoy and celebrate them, and vice-versa.

As our country and community mourns the loss of this iconic musician who had such foresight and vision, let’s learn from him. Let’s break down barriers, and build respect and love for one another “in the spirit of the great heart”.

His death just two days before Mandela Day, which would have been the iconic leader’s birthday, seems meaningful. It doesn’t seem so long ago that Clegg’s song, Asimbonanga, about never having seen Nelson Mandela who was still in prison on Robben Island, was banned.

I guess I’m really showing my age, but though both icons of non-racialism and the South African dream are gone, I hope their legacy will remind us what we can have. This holy grail should be part of a real effort to cherish the various communities in this country as we would our own.

It’s vital to have commissions of enquiry into state capture and corruption, and rid our country of that toxicity. Then, we need to help rebuild the rainbow nation we all dreamed of.

So many of us are losing hope, and getting stuck in a rut of negativity. That’s a choice. Let’s choose to love this “cruel, crazy, beautiful world”!

Let’s let the legacy of Clegg and Mandela rebuild a harmonious and successful country.

Shabbat Shalom!


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