Thoughtful memoir of the making of a white Zulu

Review: Vivien Horler

Scatterling of Africa – My early years, by Johnny Clegg (Macmillan)

They are the scatterlings of Africa/ Each uprooted one/ On the road to Phelamanga/ Where the world began

The world of Johnny Clegg, as we know him, began not on the road to Phelamanga – which is apparently a name made up to suit the rhythm of the line – but one evening in the working class Joburg suburb of Bellvue.

It was 1967, Clegg was 14, and his mother had sent him to the corner café to buy bread and milk. Outside the café a young Zulu man was playing his guitar with what Clegg describes as a complicated rhythmic picking line.

At the time Clegg was learning to play classical guitar, but as he watched the young man he realised his guitar was tuned differently and he played with a unique finger-picking style, “foreign, metallic and urgent at the same time”.

Clegg asked the man if he would teach him, but he laughed and said: “Too hard for you.” Clegg persisted, the guy mulled it over, and said okay.

“In that moment, beneath the flickering neon light outside the café … in Bellevue, Johannesburg, my life changed. I had taken the first step on the road to becoming a maskandi Zulu street musician.”

Clegg had just met Charlie Mzila, a cleaner in a block of flats – but that was not who he was in real life. He was, in fact, a genuine tribal Zulu warrior who opened doors for Clegg to music, to war dancing, to the Zulu language and to immersion in Zulu tribal life both in the society of Joburg’s migrant worker hostels and in rural KwaZulu-Natal.

Soon after the lessons began the flats’ white caretaker told Mzila he couldn’t entertain white people in his rooftop room. When Mzila protested, the caretaker fired him. Mzila told him: “You are the caretaker of the building, not of South Africa. And when you walk in the street downstairs you are just a person like me. Remember that. I am Zulu. I am not scared of you. You can fire me, I don’t care, but remember you must still cross the road to the café to buy cigarettes.”

After that there was no more talk of being fired or of barring Clegg from Mzila’s room.

This memoir takes us from Clegg’s earliest years to the 1985 ending of Juluka, the band formed by Clegg and Sipho Mchunu  when, on the crest of the wave of success, Mchunu decided to settle back at home in KZN to farm and care for his family.

Clegg reveals some startling facts about his origins. After Clegg was born in the UK following Clegg’s mother’s marriage to a non-Jewish trainee RAF pilot, Clegg’s wily Jewish grandfather managed to organise both a bris and then mother and baby’s return to the family home in the former Southern Rhodesia. From the age of six months Clegg did not see his father again until he tracked his dad down when he was 21.

His mother Muriel later settled in Joburg where she married a man whom Clegg admired greatly, but who later absconded to Australia with Clegg’s toddler half-sister. I would have liked a bit more of the family repercussions of this event, but Clegg does not go into detail about what must have been a devastating blow to himself and his mother.

Certainly this memoir is about Clegg’s early years, but even more it is about Zulu culture. He embraced it, was accepted by it, and became in a real sense a “white Zulu”, a term I had always assumed was a casual media title.

In a way Clegg acts here as an interpreter of Zuluness to people like me who find it, especially as embodied by people like Jacob Zuma, complex and perplexing. He says he was often challenged about admiring a culture that was so deeply patrimonial.

He answered by saying it was a culture shaped in part by the migrant worker system, with apartheid and the labour influx control system helping to freeze these rural societies. If you could not urbanise and your movements were monitored by the pass laws, it was in your interests as a man to maintain your power base in your own culture.

Clegg, who died of pancreatic cancer in July 2019, was a deeply introspective man, an anthropologist, a musician, a dancer, a husband and father, and above all, a Zulu. This is an interesting and thought-provoking book that gives insights into a South African icon.


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