Asimbonanga uMandela, but we saw Johnny Clegg

Knowing that your chances of ever meeting the Great Nelson Mandela are gone forever can be quite devastating, especially when you see people, way younger than you are, posting images holding his hand or posing alongside him. Then you suddenly beat yourself up for not having tried harder to meet him. So, from myself and many other South Africans: ‘Asimbonanga’ uMandela, but we saw Johnny Clegg. And that for me is enough.

By Soka Mthembu

Earlier this year I was devastated to read in the papers that one of Africa’s greatest icons, Johnny Clegg, had been living with cancer, and that he was doing his final World Tour starting in Cape Town on 30th June. Upon hearing the news, I immediately contacted my mentor, Barry Leitch, a close friend of Johnny “Skeyi” Clegg, who confirmed that Johnny was indeed conducting his last world tour. From that moment, I made the decision to see him in action on the Durban leg of his tour. Little did I know, however, that my stay here in South East Asia – Vietnam to be precise, where I’m currently performing with my dance troupe ‘Beyond Zulu’, would be extended by another 6 months. That was the nail in the coffin for me.

Okay, let me tell you how I met Johnny Clegg, and why I’m inspired by him: When I was 14 years old in Zululand – in fact I was 14 years everywhere − I met Johnny Clegg, who had come to visit his old friend Barry “Mkhomazi” Leitch.  Barry, just like Johnny, is a white Zulu, whose love for Zulu people and their culture is inspiring. Coincidentally, Barry is also an anthropologist by profession, just like Mr Clegg.

It was during the time that I was a Zulu dancer at the beautiful and unique Simunye Zulu Lodge, a secluded lodge that was built on a cliff face, and attached to a cultural Zulu village (don’t Google it or attempt to go there…let’s just say it was one of the government’s Land Redistribution deals that fell into the wrong hands, and therefore was completely ruined).

Back to my story: It was a dark night in Zululand with stars winking at us, and the trees above us dimming them in jealousy. Had it not been for the yellow flames coming from the home-made hessian and paraffin lamps scattered around the Zulu dancing area, it would have been even darker. The Mfule River behind us created a soothing sound, and the frogs, without fail, added their voice to the drumbeat. Nduna Luthuli was a lead singer and dancer (igoso) on that day − one of the ablest and most creative dancers I have ever met. We took our turns after an Umzansi dance routine. Before we knew it, Johnny had risen unexpectedly like a Colossus in front of us. In a fraction of a second he was on the other side of the fireplace, dancing as he would have done for an audience of thousands of people, ignoring our off-beat drumbeat, the-not-so-professional singing, and the small crowd. Our jaws dropped, as did the tourists’, as we watched with great admiration and envy, forgetting to clap (which forms part of Zulu dancing). This mlungu had put all of us to shame in front of internationals and our fans from the nearby Njomelwane community, but we loved him for it: for his great and inspiring performance, his humility, and for being kind enough to give us pointers in respect of the Umzansi Dance. It was a treat for us − for me − for tourists − a place where no one famous, especially not Johnny Clegg, should have dared go. I would later learn that Johnny did the same in hostels, places that I, as a Zulu, am afraid of going to: they are so often associated with conflicts and violence.  I often wonder how he manages to dance and find peace in such places?

How tragic that someone who has played such a meaningful role in society, and is such a fearless man, should be assaulted by cancer. But Johnny can overcome.

Together with countless others the world over, I wish Johnny Clegg good health and many more years. And as ever go f**k yourself cancer!

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