Johnny Clegg, a South African musician who performed in defiance of racial barriers imposed under the country’s apartheid system decades ago and celebrated its new democracy under Nelson Mandela, died Tuesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 66.
The Grammy-nominated and British-born singer sometimes called the “White Zulu” died peacefully at home in Johannesburg with his family there, according to Clegg’s manager, Roddy Quin.
“He fought it to the last second,” Quin told the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
Clegg’s multi-racial bands during South Africa’s white minority rule attracted an international following. He crafted hits inspired by Zulu and township harmonies, as well as folk music and other influences.South Africa’s government said in a statement that “his music had the ability to unite people across the races …. Clegg has made an indelible mark in the music industry and the hearts of the people.”
One of his best-known songs was “Asimbonanga,” which means “We’ve never seen him” in Zulu. It refers to South Africans during apartheid when images of the then-imprisoned Mandela were banned. Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison and became South Africa’s first black president in all-race elections four years later.
Political opposition leader Mmusi Maimane said Clegg “wrote our SA story when our country was at its worst and at its best.”
The Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir said it was “devastated” by Clegg’s death and called him a “music icon and a true South African.” Fellow musicians posted similar tributes on social media.
Clegg learned about Zulu music and dancing as a teenager when he hung out with a Zulu cleaner and street musician called Charlie Mzila. He later explored his idea of “crossover” music with the multi-racial bands Juluka and Savuka at a time of bitter conflict in South Africa over the country’s white minority rule.
Clegg recorded songs he was arrested for and “never gave in to the pressure of the apartheid rules,” his manager said.
The apartheid-era censorship also restricted where he could perform, yet Clegg “impacted millions of people around the world,” Quin said. “He played a major role in South Africa getting people to learn about other people’s cultures and bringing people together.”
The musician performed as late as 2017, high-kicking and stomping during a tour called “The Final Journey” while his cancer was in remission.
At a concert in Johannesburg that year, Clegg said that “all of these entries into traditional culture gave me a way of understanding myself, helping me to shape a kind of African identity for myself, and freed me up to examine another way of looking at the world.”
In December, Clegg told South African news channel eNCA the “toughest part of my journey will be the next two years” and called himself an “outlier” in an interview that mused about mortality.
The performer was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and the grueling treatment included two six-month sessions of chemotherapy and an operation.
“I don’t have a duodenum and half my stomach. I don’t have a bile duct. I don’t have a gall bladder and half my pancreas. It’s all been reconfigured,” he told reporters in 2017.
In that interview, Clegg recalled how he performed “Asimbonanga” while on tour in Germany in 1997 and experienced a “huge shock” when Mandela, beaming and dancing, unexpectedly came out on stage behind him.
“It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world. And at peace with myself,” Mandela said to the audience. He asked Clegg to resume his performance and urged the audience to get up and dance.
At the end of the song, Mandela and Clegg, holding hands, walked off stage.
“That was the pinnacle moment for me,” Clegg recalled. “It was just a complete and amazing gift from the universe.”