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South African 'White Zulu' anti-apartheid activist and musician Johnny Clegg dies

Johnny Clegg on stage in Cape Town in June 2017, the first show of his final world tour
Johnny Clegg on stage in Cape Town in June 2017, the first show of his final world tour Rodger Bosch/AFP

British-born South African singer Johnny Clegg, known as the “White Zulu”, died at home in Johannesburg on Tuesday. He performed with multi-racial bands in defiance of South Africa’s apartheid system in the 1970s and ‘80s, and he celebrated the country’s new democracy under Nelson Mandela.

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South Africa's government said in a statement that Clegg’s music "had the ability to unite people across the races”. He crafted hits inspired by Zulu and township harmonies as well as folk music and other influences.

Johnny Clegg with Nelson Mandela

Clegg, who was white, spoke fluent Zulu and mixed it into his traditional folk music, or 'mbaqanga'. He formed the band Juluka in 1969 with the black guitarist Sipho Mchunu, at a time when mixing among races was illegal under Apartheid.

His songs and political outlook put him into direct conflict with the apartheid government, and much of his music was banned from the airwaves, and his public performances limited.

Tribute to Nelson Mandela

One of Clegg's best-known songs, "Asimbonanga", is a tribute to Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned for two decades in 1987 when it was released. The title, which means "We've never seen him" in Zulu, refers to the banning of images Mandela, who later became the country’s first black president, when he was released from prison in 1990.

While on tour in Germany in 1997, Clegg was surprised when Mandela unexpectedly came out on stage behind him.

Clegg was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015. He embarked on a farewell tour, while his cancer was in remission. He died peacefully, surrounded by family, according to his manager. He was 66 years old.

 

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