What Johnny Clegg taught South Africans about Nelson Mandela
In 1999, South African pop star Johnny Clegg was performing in Frankfurt, Germany, when Nelson Mandela sneaked on stage. Mr. Clegg was singing “Asimbonanga,” his 1987 hit about Mr. Mandela’s imprisonment. Unbeknownst to the band, Mr. Mandela started dancing behind them.
"The audience erupted and I thought, 'Wow! they know my song,’ but it was Mandela, walking behind me on stage,’" Mr. Clegg later recalled.
Growing up in South Africa, I witnessed firsthand how Mr. Clegg, who died this week, helped change his fellow countrymen’s minds about Mr. Mandela and apartheid. The first concert I ever saw was Mr. Clegg’s arena show in Johannesburg in 1989. The songwriter had a multiracial band and he performed traditional Inhlangwini dances. His high kicks would put a karate master to shame.
Mr. Clegg’s songs combined English and Zulu (he’d once lived in a hostel among black migrant workers) but his music had a universal appeal. At a time when white South Africans were largely disinterested in domestic music, hits such as “Great Heart” and “Cruel, Crazy, Beautiful World” introduced us to the riches of African pop. Yet it wasn’t just Mr. Clegg’s protest lyrics that spoke loudest. It was how he lived by example. Up through his Final Journey Tour, he exuded a grace and joy that reflected his love of people and faith in humanity.
Mr. Clegg once told an interviewer that the long struggle to end apartheid taught him a lesson in patience. Change, as he noted, can take time.
“People waited for 30, 40 years,” he said. “It bore fruit. It taught me that the new South Africa can’t be perfect. The new South Africa is going to take another 40 years to be truly flourishing and truly democratic and truly offer its citizenship a flowering future.”
Stephen Humphries, Culture writer