• home Home
  • keyboard_arrow_right CURRENT AFFAIRS
  • keyboard_arrow_right Posts
  • keyboard_arrow_rightJohnny Clegg: Rebel, intellectual, musician

Johnny Clegg: Rebel, intellectual, musician

By: Richard Pithouse

In death, the artist begins the process of becoming a collective ancestor for South Africans and others around the world whose lives have been touched by his music and deep empathy with the oppressed.

Johnny Clegg died at his home in Johannesburg on Tuesday 16 July, in the care of his family.

Most of us are carried on the tides of history, like flotsam. In art, as in politics, the great figures confront the weight of history, the limits of the situations into which they are thrust, and make their own choices.

Clegg, a man of rare and sparkling intelligence, was, in the most fundamental sense of the term, a rebel. As a teenager he made an existential choice to confront history and to refuse the situation in which he found himself.

As an intellectual, a poet, a musician, a dancer and a politically committed person, he harnessed a masculine strength to an aspiration for justice, grounded in a profound empathy for some of the most oppressed people in society, rather than dogmatic abstraction.

From jazz to maskandi

The son of a jazz singer, his encounters with street musicians in Yeoville, the Johannesburg suburb in which he lived, enabled him to begin to forge his own artistic trajectory.

At 14, he met Charlie Mzila, who was working as a cleaner in a block of flats. Mzila began to teach Clegg to play maskandi guitar. At 16, he met Sipho Mchunu, a maskandi musician who was working as a gardener. In the following year, 1970, the two started performing as a duo.

From the beginning, the strictures of apartheid meant that their collaboration could only find audiences in liminal spaces like migrant worker hostels or the unstable infrastructure of Johannesburg’s middle-class left.

Their first single, Woza Friday, was released in 1976. It is an infectious pop song that became a hit the following year after receiving radio play in what was then the Transkei and Swaziland. It has an undeniable place in the history of great South African pop songs.

Clegg and Mchunu’s first album, Universal Men, was released in 1979 under the name of their new band, Juluka. It included musicians of the stature of Sipho Gumede and Robbie Jansen, and although it initially sold poorly it is now widely recognised as a classic in the history of South African music.

The album is a sustained, and often lyrical, engagement with migrant labour. Clegg was reading John Berger’s A Seventh Man, which examines migrant labour in Europe, while the album was being composed and it carries echoes of Pablo Neruda, and a deeply humanistic Marxism.

Speaking in an interview in 2000, 21 years after the album’s release, Clegg explained that:

Universal Men is about bridging two worlds. Going and coming. While the worker is en route, on a bus or a train, he is given the time to look over the distances, geographic and otherwise, in his life. Migrant labourers, in Africa, Europe, everywhere, are like universal joints. They are this incredible human resource who are just sucked up by the capitalist system and used anywhere. The system makes no concessions and so the workers have to create a whole new universe of meaning.”

Timeless music, rooted in politics

Brilliant debut albums are notoriously difficult for artists to follow but Clegg, working in partnership with Mchunu, would go on to release another five albums, each of them extraordinary, in the next four years. The work produced with Juluka is an astonishing sequence of creativity. Each of the six Juluka albums released between 1979 and 1984 stands up today as work of enduring appeal and consequence.

With songs about everything from work to war, love, political violence, football, horse racing, rural and city life, Juluka was a project shaped by an intense and restless curiosity about society.

The band’s second hit came with Impi, in 1981. The following year Scatterlings of Africa did even better, and charted in the United Kingdom.

Over time, the political commitments animating Juluka moved from an initially largely allegorical form of expression into increasingly direct, but never crude or sloganeering, statements. Songs such as African Sky Blue and Work for All continued the exploration of the African working-class experience, while Mdantsane explored the lived experience of gathering repression. Siyayilanda spoke to growing resistance, and a sense that popular will could bend the arc of history.

This body of work has produced a set of classic South African songs, including Umfazi OmdalaDecember African Rain, and Ibhola Lethu, but it still contains largely unrecognised gems. Inkunzi Ayihlabi Ngokumisa, off the Universal Men album, is a sublime engagement with the mouth bow. Thandiwe, from the African Litany album, is as funky as fuck. Umbaqanga Music, released in 1984 on a compilation of tracks recorded for a growing international audience, is a fabulous pop song.

A shift in direction and the birth of Savuka

In 1985, Mchunu moved back to his rural homestead. Clegg’s first solo album, Third World Child, released in the first year of the state of emergency, was a bold shift in musical direction. Marked sonically and visually by an arcade-game futurism, it captured, although largely via allusion, a strong sense of political commitment in a time of repression.

The Juluka albums all have a timeless feel. They are a collection of music for the ages. But as with all the attempts at the time to create electronically driven music with a sense of a hi-tech future to come, Third World Child now sounds marked by the moment in which it was created.

In 1986, as the political crisis deepened, Clegg released a single in the name of a new band, Savuka. The new song, Asimbonanga, was transcendent, searing, powerful and beautiful – another record for the ages. At the time Nelson Mandela’s name meant something very different to what it later came to mean and this record, which also namechecked Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge and Neil Aggett, offered a profoundly dissident cultural experience. It was a defiant and explicit identification with the popular movement against apartheid and rapidly became one of its anthems.

Savuka released an album a year between 1987 and 1989. The first album, also titled Third World Child, was a collection of songs put together to introduce the band to an international audience rather than a thematic statement. It sustained an explicit political commitment with songs like Missing, which opens with an all too contemporary image of burning tyres on a road blockade. In commercial terms, the album was a storming success and Clegg became a global icon.

The next two albums, Shadow Man and Cruel Crazy Beautiful World, don’t have the artistic power of the extraordinary decade of work that runs from 1976 to 1986. But Cruel Crazy Beautiful World is notable for Clegg’s movement into an international vision in the moving anti-fascist song Warsaw 1943, and the never adequately recognised One (Hu)’Man One Vote. Released in 1989, it is a powerful political statement that effectively captures a dramatic sense of the popular uprising of the time and sounds entirely credible today as a piece of music.

The great Savuka album, Heat, Dust and Dreams, came in 1993. Best known for The Crossing, the song Clegg wrote after the assassination of his dancing partner, Dudu Zulu, it’s a consistently powerful artistic statement of the times that remains compelling today. Musically, it drew on everything from French Celtic sounds to influences from classical Indian music. It carries a powerful sense of a people in movement through difficult times, and an astute sense of how the personal and political are entwined.

The reformation of Juluka in 1997 produced the unremarkable Ya Vuka Inkunzi. It was followed by four solo albums between 2002 and 2017: New World Survivor, One Life, Human and King of Time. None of this work reached the artistic heights of the albums produced under apartheid but Clegg, a dissident figure during that time, became a respected mainstream figure after apartheid.

Becoming a collective ancestor

Not entirely unlike Mandela, with whom he became closely associated through Asimbonanga, Clegg was incorporated into the anodyne multiculturalism that became an official discourse after apartheid and is now derisorily referred to as “rainbowism”. But make no mistake, he was a dissident, a courageous man who confronted history and left an enduring mark on the world in which he found himself, and an extraordinarily gifted and accomplished artist.

Clegg inspired millions and offered a deeply humanistic social and political vision. Today, as he begins the process of becoming a collective ancestor, and people across South Africa, and in many other parts of the world, return to his music, and memories of his always extraordinary performances, we return, in a time of rot and a pitiful lack of political vision, to our highest aspirations for ourselves and our future.

This article was first published by New Frame.

Written by: Kayafm Digital


UpComing Shows

DownLoad Our Mobile App


Privacy Policy


POPIA ActTo promote the protection of personal information processed by public and private bodies; to introduce certain conditions so as to establish minimum requirements for the processing of personal information; to provide for the establishment of an Information Regulator to exercise certain powers and to perform certain duties and functions in terms of this Act and the Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000; to provide for the issuing of codes of conduct; to provide for the rights of persons regarding unsolicited electronic communications and automated decision making; to regulate the flow of personal information across the borders of the Republic; and to provide for matters connected therewith.


  • section 14 of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, provides that everyone has the right to privacy;
  • the right to privacy includes a right to protection against the unlawful collection, retention, dissemination and use of personal information;
  • the State must respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights in the Bill of Rights;


  • consonant with the constitutional values of democracy and openness, the need for economic and social progress, within the framework of the information society, requires the removal of unnecessary impediments to the free flow of information, including personal information;


  • regulate, in harmony with international standards, the processing of personal information by public and private bodies in a manner that gives effect to the right to privacy subject to justifiable limitations that are aimed at protecting other rights and important interests,
  1. Definitions and Interpretation

1.1.“Personal Information” means information relating to an identifiable, living, natural person and where it is applicable, identifiable, existing juristic person, including all information as defined in the Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013. 

1.2  Parliament assented to POPIA on 19 November 2013. The commencement date of section 1Part A of Chapter 5section 112 and section 113 was 11 April 2014. The commencement date of the other sections was 1 July 2020 (with the exception of section 110 and 114(4). The President of South Africa has proclaimed the POPI commencement date to be 1 July 2020.

1.3. “Processing” means the creation, generation, communication, storage, destruction of personal information as more fully defined in the Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013.  

1.4. “You” or the “user” means any person who accesses and browses this website for any purpose. 

1.4. “Website” means the website of the KAYA 959 at URL or such other URL as KAYA 959 may choose from time to time.   

  1. Status and Amendments

2.1. KAYA 959 respects your privacy. This privacy policy statement sets out KAYA 959’s information gathering and dissemination practices in respect of the Website. 

2.2. This Privacy Policy governs the processing of personal information provided to KAYA 959 through your use of the Website. 

2.3. Please note that, due to legal and other developments, KAYA 959 may amend these terms and conditions from time to time.  

  1. Processing of Personal Information

3.1. By providing your personal information to KAYA 959 you acknowledge that it has been collected directly from you and consent to its processing by KAYA 959. 

3.2. Where you submit Personal Information (such as name, address, telephone number and email address) via the website (e.g. through completing any online form) the following principles are observed in the processing of that information: 

3.2.1. KAYA 959 will only collect personal information for a purpose consistent with the purpose for which it is required. The specific purpose for which information is 
collected will be apparent from the context in which it is requested. 

3.2.2. KAYA 959 will only process personal information in a manner that is adequate, relevant and not excessive in the context of the purpose for which it is processed. 

3.2.3. Personal information will only be processed for a purpose compatible with that for which it was collected, unless you have agreed to an alternative purpose in writing or KAYA 959 is permitted in terms of national legislation of general application dealing primarily with the protection of personal information. 

3.2.4. KAYA 959 will keep records of all personal Information collected and the specific purpose for which it was collected for a period of 1 (one) year from the date on which it was last used. 

3.2.5. KAYA 959 will not disclose any personal information relating to you to any third party unless your prior written agreement is obtained or KAYA 959 is required to do so by law. 

3.2.6. If personal information is released with your consent KAYA 959 will retain a record of the information released, the third party to which it was released, the reason for the release and the date of release, for a period of 1 (one) year from the date on which it was last used. 

3.2.7. KAYA 959 will destroy or delete any personal information that is no longer needed by KAYA 959 for the purpose it was initially collected, or subsequently processed. 

3.3. Note that, as permitted by the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 25 of 2002, KAYA 959 may use personal information collected to compile profiles for statistical purposes. No information contained in the profiles or statistics will be able to be linked to any specific user.    

  1. Collection of anonymous data

4.1. KAYA 959 may use standard technology to collect information about the use of this website. This technology is not able to identify individual users but simply allows KAYA 959 to collect statistics. 

4.2. KAYA 959 may utilise temporary or session cookies to keep track of users’ browsing habits. A cookie is a small file that is placed on your hard drive in order to keep a record of your interaction with this website and facilitate user convenience. 

4.2.1. Cookies by themselves will not be used to identify users personally but may be used to compile identified statistics relating to use of services offered or to provide KAYA 959 with feedback on the performance of this website. 

4.2.2. The following classes of information may be collected in respect of users who have enabled cookies: The browser software used; IP address; Date and time of activities while visiting the website; URLs of internal pages visited; and referrers. 

4.3. If you do not wish cookies to be employed to customize your interaction with this website it is possible to alter the manner in which your browser handles cookies. Please note that, if this is done, certain services on this website may not be available. 

  1. Security

5.1. KAYA 959 takes reasonable measures to ensure the security and integrity of information submitted to or collected by this website, but cannot under any circumstances be held liable for any loss or other damage sustained by you as a result of unlawful access to or dissemination of any personal information by a third party. 

  1. Links to other websites

6.1. KAYA 959 has no control over and accepts no responsibility for the privacy practices of any third party websites to which hyperlinks may have been provided and KAYA 959 strongly recommends that you review the privacy policy of any website you visit before using it further. 

  1. Queries

7.1. If you have any queries about this privacy policy please contact us by emailing [email protected]