“I’m searching for the spirit of the great heart” the one line of one song that sets you back to a time where things were changing quickly in a culturally diverse South Africa. And every kid wanted to be a Zulu no matter their skin colour. We all wanted to be in Jaluka. It’s all thanks to Johnny Clegg.
I was born in the early 1980s and grew up on a plot as the youngest of 3. But I had friends, our domestic worker and her family lived nearby and there was always a friend to play with. I didn’t grasp that there were laws at the time that prohibited it. Thank goodness the police weren’t interested in us. But in 1986 a South African film debuted “Jock of the Bushveld” and a beloved story of the Lowveld came to life. “Great Heart” to this day runs in my head as I enter the Kruger National Park. The place that has many stories of Jock and his human, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.
But what makes this special is, Johnny Clegg’s song “Great Heart” gave Jock a theme. It gave a theme to the Lowveld and all her beauty.
It was only many years later that I truly got to appreciate Clegg’s music, I understood it better, I was older and wiser. I understood his fight alongside his Zulu brothers, to change people’s hearts. In a sense we all trying to accept everyone, so the war is long from over. But what stood out for me is that Clegg’s music was about peace, acceptance, love for people and land. Even I still struggle with my Zulu but I can pick up a word or two. It was his interview on 5fm’s “5 Talks” with Nick Hammon that I got to learn a little inside to a humble person.
One of his live performances that stood out of me was the 46664 Concert on 1 December 2007. It was at Ellispark, the legendary sports field in the heart of Johannesburg. The line-up that day was insane – The Goo Goo Dolls, Peter Gabriel, Live, Anne Lennox, Prime Circle to mention just a small handful. Johnny Clegg and his band appeared and opened with “Isoka Liyatatazela” which of course set the party.
I think it was just after he performed “Impi” that Nelson Mandela himself got onto the stage. Madiba was not the Mandala we remember, but he waved and smiled. The love in his eyes shining through like the brightest star in our African heavens. And all the artists were standing behind him. I smile because it’s amazing to remember that I was there. I felt the magic, the presence.
And then the news in 2015, Johnny Clegg has been diagnosed with pancreas cancer. What a shock wave, I’m sure it was for him and his family (both blood and musically). It’s a tough kind of cancer to even spell never mind beat. Johnny decided to retire from music after 40 years. But like he said then “I’m living in a parallel universe with my condition” but he had made peace with the fact that he is retiring.
The Friends of Johnny Clegg which included his son Jesse Clegg, Francois van Coke, Dan Patlansky, Laudo Liebenberg, Jack Parow, Jaunita du Plessis, Craig Lucas, Lira, David Kramer and so many more did a cover of his song “The Crossing”. What a gooseflesh moment it was, and I’m sure for him he sat there, fingers laced together, mouthing the words and feeling the love. I’m sure he was humbled at the stage. This is in order to raise funds for Clegg’s foundation to provide all children with proper school education. You can still pledge towards this cause.
Then it happened, a solar eclipse with a beautiful full moon rising over the hills and mountains of South Africa. But in the celebration for the full moon, we as South Africans are mourning the passing of the great man, musician and role model, Johnny Clegg. It’s a deep sadness we all feel but nothing will compare it to the loss his family and friends are feeling. The one more hug, the one more laugh, the one more song, those feelings. The whys, if what’s and could haves. But we can mourn the loss of a voice we heard for so long. That has formed and united South Africa like the mountains surrounding us.
I call him “inhliziyo yengonyama” (lionheart) because of his courage, his leadership, his humble ways. The little his fans and the close hand of family and friends knew. And when he crossed the Great River we all one day will cross, I’m sure he was awaited by many greats. His legacy is in our nature, in our blood, in the lions’ roar.
Creating our memories his music in our living rooms. In our universities. In our schools. In our cars. In our hearts. We are the scatterlings of Africa, we are born here to die here.
Hamba kahle, inhliziyo yengonyama – phumula kahle