My Early Years, Scatterling of Africa, tells the story of Johnny Clegg’s formative years, how his passage to fame started, as he himself wrote it and as he wanted it to be told. It is his innermost discovery of Zulu culture, sharing his insights and his journey through a turbulent environment.
Johnny Clegg’s story brings back the injustice of South Africa during apartheid. In this memoir he paints and shares the portrait of a deeply divided society. With this chronicle, he shares how he felt drawn to and more at home among the Zulu tradition, the ‘other’ side, than his own familiar background.
‘The success story of Juluka and later Savuka, and the cross-cultural celebration of music, language, story, dance and song that stirred the hearts of millions across the world, is well documented. Their music was the soundtrack to many South Africans’ lives during the turbulent 70s and 80s as the country moved from legislated oppression to democratic freedom. It crossed borders, boundaries and generations, resonating around the world and back again. Less known is the story of how it all began and developed. Scatterling of Africa, is that origin story, as Johnny Clegg wrote it and wanted it told. It is the story of how the son of an unconventional mother, grandson of Jewish immigrants, came to realise that identity can be a choice, and home is a place you leave and return to as surely as the seasons change.’
Clegg’s wife Jenny and sons Jesse and Jaron, share how he started slowly writing his book in 2014. This took the form of saving short notes onto his cellphone, making voice-recordings, and scribbling on pieces of paper and sticky notes at coffee shops and backstage at gigs.
‘He would often send us small excerpts with a lot of caveats and uncertainty included in the preamble,’ they explain. ‘It may surprise the reader that Johnny felt a great deal of self-doubt in writing his story. He confided in us how daunting a task it was to write about all of his layered experiences. It was hard to know where to start and how to capture the essence of his story. He even wondered if his account would be interesting to any reader. He was never someone who defined himself by the accolades he achieved and the milestones he reached. He was fully engaged in what he called “the bigger picture”. This was why, ultimately, he landed where he did, focusing on the period of his life that he considered the most profound, complex and unique – his formative years.’
Clegg explains how a 14-year-old Jewish kid by descent, the grandchild of immigrants, landed up forming the first traditional Zulu crossover band inside the apartheid state with his partner Sipho Mchunu.
‘My primal motivation to enter the world of the Zulu migrant worker culture was not driven by a personal statement against apartheid,’ he says. ‘I was 14 years old and stumbled on Zulu maskandi guitar music and, later, war dancing, and this brought me into conflict with the authorities. I was not looking for politics. Politics found me.’
He goes on to explain that a love of language and music alike deepened his love for isiZulu.
‘I came to love Zulu through words. Words embedded in traditional melodies. Idioms, proverbs and turns of phrase in isiZulu, often edged with humour, reshaped my experience of things I knew only from the point of view of the English language… It was only later, when I went to university, that the why question preoccupied my thinking and shaped the later part of my political outlook and affected the Juluka project. But it wasn’t the catalyst. Love for maskandi music and isiBhaca, isiShameni and uMzansi dancing in and for themselves was the initial, primal motivation.
Clegg’s journey saw him rise to the top of the charts as a performer loved equally among his white fans, while at the same time having thousands of black fans filling the biggest arenas in South Africa to see the star performing. Reading the story of Scatterling of Africa, it becomes evident that Clegg’s deep knowledge and love of the Zulu culture enabled him to share that love at a time when South Africa was deeply divided. He even managed to breach borders and take his performances overseas to become the famous French: ‘Le Zulu blanc!’.
Today, more than ever, this country is in need of a unifier, a voice for all citizens to heal the current deep division among South Africans. Johnny Clegg is sorely missed!
Scatterling of Africa: My Early Years is published by Pan Macmillan South Africa and is available from October 2021. All images courtesy of Scatterling of Africa: My Early Years/Pan Macmillan.