A week ago, I was listening to the album “Paris - Soweto” by Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens on Spotify. I usually find Spotify switching over to “Album Radio” at the end of an album pretty irritating, but this time, however, I heard a song by Johnny Clegg and Juluka which captured my attention.
The song is “Deliwe” and it is about a woman who leaves for South Africa for Europe, and the pleas of the singer for her to stay:
Whatever will you do when the rain starts to fall
Will you join the swallows and fly away
To the citadels of Europe across the sea
Deliwe would you go away without me?
Deliwe would you love me, would you leave me?
Would you leave this land that's green where your home straddles the earth
Leave the winds and the blessing of the bushland?
“Deliwe”, from their debut album Universal Men, starts with a traditional folk intro reminiscent of the intro to Awungilobolele or Sobobamba by Udokotela Shange Namajaha, but soon the melody and rhythm shifts into something more northern European ala The Police and U2 with lyrics in English. It’s surprising because its musical ingredients seem difficult to place, much like trying to guess the exact flavors that make up Coca-Cola.
The origins of the song's unique texture may be found in the origins of its creators. Born in England, but raised in Zimbabwe (then known as Southern Rhodesia) and Johannesburg, Johnny Clegg grew up a white man in countries carved into deep bloody grooves by racism and violence. As a teenager, Clegg learned Zulu dance and song from a community of migrant workers, through whom he met his longtime musical partner Sipho Mchunu, a Zulu migrant worker living in Soweto. Together they formed Johnny Clegg and Juluka, a racially mixed band with cross-racial appeal that was an anomaly in the late 70s and 80s.
South Africa’s apartheid regime severely restricted the broadcasting of their music and even the freedom of movement that they needed to perform as a band. Nevertheless, the timely creation of an independent radio station and a broader global awareness of the cruelty of apartheid broke their band into the mainstream, years before Paul Simon’s Graceland would change how much of the rest of the world saw South Africa’s musical traditions. Mchunu’s experiences as a migrant worker formed the core of Universal Men and grounded Juluka’s pop sensibilities firmly in the reality of apartheid.
Clegg, Juluka, and later Savuka, would become prominent figures of the anti-apartheid movement, performing alongside the great Miriam Mkeba, jazz legends Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim, and members of the African National Congress, including Nelson Mandela.
For Clegg, the Juluka project especially was an attempt to find a place of home in South Africa. As he described it, “The issue of being a white African and finding a place for European culture in a base of African music was an important aspect of what I was doing”. Clegg as a musicologist found a surprising transposition:
"I was exposed to Celtic folk music early on .. I never knew my dad, who was from England, and music was one way which I can connect with that country...I sometimes heard traditional Zulu war songs in a minor key. And I could hear Celtic melodies. I could hear rhythms. I could hear 6/8 meter.So I thought, 'There's a conversation here to be had’."
As South Africa's global image has improved, Rhodesia, Clegg’s childhood home, has become a totemic symbol for the resurgent armed and violent American white nationalist movement, its name and history reverberating through the country as photos emerged of the Charleston shooter in Rhodesian military attire. Rhodesia was named after Cecil Rhodes, the British tyrant who shaped much of the political geography of the southern portion of the African continent, and whose cruelty seeded great suffering for years to come.
About a decade ago, as I was applying to the Rhodes Scholarship. I sought help from my friend Jeremy Farris, a kind, intelligent young Southerner who was fresh off of his own tour of duty as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford. He advised that if I won the scholarship, I would have blood on my hands because the scholarship was built off of Rhodes’s terrible legacy. And that I should never forget that for as long as I live. I did not get the scholarship, but still reflect on his words and how what I do and how I behave may be complicit with the propagation of cruelty and fear.
So where does that leave Rhodesia and South Africa today? Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, a figure rivalling his British predecessors in violence, has resigned in the face of a military coup. South Africa is also embracing a new era following the Bell Pottinger/Gupta scandal and the resignation of the corrupt Jacob Zuma as president. Johnny Clegg, in remission for pancreatic cancer, has gone on his last tour and retired last year but is still nurturing the next generation of trans-racial artists. Sipho Mchunu, after 15 years with Juluka, found the performing and touring lifestyle too much and retired to farming and herding cattle.
Finally, let’s discuss Cape Town. The city distinguishes itself from much of the rest of South Africa by its demographics, more white and more segregated than the rest of the country. When apartheid collapsed, many whites spoke of “semigrating” to Cape Town because it was practically Europe. Many assumed that when the city was inevitably forced to severely ration water, that the long simmering tensions of post-apartheid life would come to a boil.
Yet, according to a great article by Eve Fairbanks, Capetonians did not descend into violence. Faced with the undeniable wrath of nature, people from across the city’s racial and socioeconomic lines came together to help each other out. Old divisions fraught with history seem to evaporate, at least for a moment, in favor of a friendly spirit of community and competition centered on water conservation. In a way, perhaps, Cape Town has shown that it is still possible to define ourselves in ways we haven’t yet considered and in that act of self-definition achieve freedom.