Vale Johnny Clegg

It’s not often you get to participate in an important historical moment simply by watching television on your grandparents couch, but it happened to me when I was 14.

To explain: my grandparents lived in South Africa, so despite my parents’ reluctance to spend any more time than necessary in the Apartheid state, we visited several times during my childhood.

Once a variety show was playing on the nation’s only television station and the band Jaluka performed live in the studio. The music was so catchy, and so unlike anything I had heard before I bought a tape before we left the country, but I didn’t miss the real significance, that the band mixed black and white musicians, and not simply as black backing artists for a white leader.

I knew such an event was rare, but didn’t know it was unprecedented. Whoever made the decision to invite Jaluka on almost certainly risked their job. Only a few years before their concerts were raided by the police and the band members arrested.

Even more memorable than the music was the exceptionally energetic Zulu dancing, particularly during the instrumental break when the two central members of the band Johnny Clegg and Sipho Mchunu, white and black respectively, performed some astonishingly acrobatic dance moves. Juluka, I learned, means sweat in Zulu, and it was no false advertising.



I also couldn’t miss the delight on the band member’s faces, their joy in what they were doing. It was only later I came to see that as the most important part of all.

Juluka has been described as the first mixed race in South Africa’s history. Perhaps there were some others hiding out of sight, but they were the first to achieve commercial success, and certainly the first to make the national television station, a usually tightly controlled instrument of the state.

Back then Apartheid seemed almost invincible, if it was to fall it would only be in a sea of fire and blood. Yet six years later Mandela was free, two years after that white South Africans voted to effectively bring the whole thing down, and two years on again people queued for hours to cast the first equal votes.

The Helen Razers of the world will tell you that what I saw had nothing to do with what would come, that poetry makes nothing happen. It’s not something I can prove, but I disagree.

Many emotions had been drummed into service to persuade white South Africans to loosen their grip on power. Guilt at what was being done to their fellow nations, fear of a revolution or invasion from the rest of Africa, greed as the economy was squeezed through sanctions and desire to once again be able to watch first class touring musicians and see their nation’s sporting teams compete against the world’s best.

Clegg said the band didn’t set out to be political, that “politics found us”, so there was probably nothing deliberate in what Jaluka added. But it was potent. What Jaluka offered was the idea that a post-Apartheid South Africa might be fun. Who wouldn’t want to learn how to do that amazing high kicking dance to those infectious beats? An older generation perhaps, but not the youth. I was straight enough to not be much affected by the fact Mchunu and Clegg, both very good looking men were stripped to the waist, but I’m sure many others weren’t.

On it’s own, this would never have been enough, but in combination with all the other factors, I’m convinced it contributed to the decisive vote winning a 70% majority, the overwhelming support necessary to avoid a collapse into civil war.

Others agreed. In the rainbow nation Clegg was showered with honours, including being included when the newly freed television station put together a list of the nation’s greatest people. His death this week made the BBC but passed barely noticed in Australia. In South Africa, I think it’s a different matter.

I’m not sure what lessons to take from this for solving the problems of today. I think activists working to resolve the Israel-Palestine question, for example, are often inclined to focus on the similarities with South Africa and miss the differences, making much of what is done ineffective or even counter-productive. So I wouldn’t jump to conclusions.

But I think there is something to be said for the unexpected, the approach no one has really tried, particularly when nothing else seems to be working. And in the immortal words of Molly Ivins, “When you’re fighting for truth and justice you won’t always win, so you better have fun.” Clegg had fun doing it, and he made sure everyone could see.

Photo from Daviddata via Wikimedia commons cc-by-3.0

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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