Interview with Johnny Clegg

Journalist: You are an honorary Zulu. What does that mean?

Johnny Clegg: Well, I wouldn’t quite put it like that, but I have a special relationship with four clans. The Zulu in fact are a language group very much – if you want to conceptualize them – like the Scottish, in a way. They’re a group of clans who are fiercely independent of one another, brought together by a common language and culture. But the clans themselves are very powerful bodies. They have their own rituals, their own history, and in a way, their own little subcultures. Over the period of the past twenty-odd years I’ve been incorporated into four clans, in a ritual relationship. They have certain claims and obligations over me and I have certain claims and obligations towards them.

The clans in particular are the clans of Sipho Mchunu, the Chunu people; the clans of Ndlovu, which is the clan of the dancer-percussionist who works with us in Savuka, Dudu Ndlovu; and the clan of Qoma, who’s a very special friend of mine. He’s a man who makes imbatata, car tyre dancing sandals for Zulu war dancing teams in Johannesburg. He makes his living from this. He’s known as Bafazane. I wrote a song for him called ‘Bullets for Bafazane’, during the Juluka period. And also with the clan of the Ngele people. These people were very good to me when I was conducting research into the origins of a particular dance style which I was investigating for my MA degree.

The claims and obligations are essentially that as a clan member I’m obliged to see that if any young member of a clan who arrives in Johannesburg is in trouble, or in jail, or needs a job or has been arrested, or has a problem, or needs money to get back home, or needs to use the phone or whatever it is, he knows that there’s a clan member there. Myself the same way, if I require assistance in any way. Also during certain festivities and ritual celebrations in Zululand, I’m obliged to be present at these festivities, whether it’s a Christmas celebration, a New Year’s celebration, or a slaughtering for the ancestors. It all sounds very serious, but it’s also a lot of fun. We’re all age mates, which means we’re peers, and that’s a very important principle in Zulu society, the age principle. Because you grow old together in the world and you’re part of an age regiment.

Journalist: Does this ever bring on problems with the police?

Johnny Clegg: In the early days, obviously, I got into a lot of trouble. My first arrest was for trespassing into a black area. In fact it was a municipal compound where the Zulu migrant workers were living. Subsequently I was arrested in all these other alternative venues that I mentioned before – compounds, apartment block rooftops, migrant hostels-even in Zululand itself, when I went to visit Sipho’s family to meet them. I knew him for about a year and a half and I really wanted to meet his family.

We went down there, and after three days the security police arrived and threatened to deport me back to England. Sipho was charged and brought to trial for bringing a white man illegally into a tribal area, which is considered to be a security zone by the police. Sipho won the case on a technicality, saying that there wasn't a sign. In all these areas there used to be a very big green board with white lettering saying, “You are now entering a black area. Anybody with white skin has to have a government permit.” And there was no board, so he got off.

From the book, ‘Stolen Moments: Conversations With Contemporary Musicians’ (1988) by Tom Schnabel, an American journalist, author, DJ, music producer and teacher

• ‘Stolen Moments: Conversations With Contemporary Musicians’ (1988) by Tom Schnabel, an American journalist, author, DJ, music producer and teacher

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