South African singer and songwriter Johnny Clegg, one of the few white artists to openly confront the apartheid government in the late 1970s and 1980s, has died.
The Grammy-nominated artist – often called the “White Zulu” – died peacefully on Tuesday at his home in Johannesburg with his family there, his manager Roddy Quin said.
Clegg was 66. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015.
“He fought it to the last second,” Quin told the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
In a statement, the South African government said: “[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.”
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’s multiracial 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.
One of his best-known songs was “Asimbonanga”, which means “We’ve never seen him” in Zulu. It refers to the 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 an all-race election four years later.
Clegg was arrested for his songs but he “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, “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.
Clegg was born in England, the child of an Englishman and a jazz singer from Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia). After they divorced during his early childhood, his mother took him to live in Zimbabwe.
He arrived in Johannesburg as a teenager in the 1960s, where he encountered the black migrant workers outlawed from the inner city by the infamous Group Areas Act and other racial laws governing nearly every aspect of life in the country.
He immersed himself in the lives of the migrant workers living in derelict hostels, learning the Zulu language, maskandi guitar and the dance styles the migrants often used to distract themselves from the harsh labour in the mines.
Clegg received a number of honorary doctorates and awards, including the presidential Order of Ikhamanga.