Originally printed in Style Weekly, Richmond, Virginia, in 1988. Johnny Clegg & His Band perform March 18 at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall.
Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa – Life goes on here in South Africa, as political conditions grow more ominous. People get up and go to work every day, white ones driving their cars, black ones rising before the sun to make the two-hour bus trip in from the townships. City streets bustle with people going about their business; white men in suits, black men in suits; white men in shirt sleeves, black ones in tatters. There are buildings being torn down and new ones going up, to the tune of jackhammers and staining cranes. Slick shopping malls wind around offices and high-rise hotels whose mirrored sides reflect the sun. In restaurants, businessmen and women have lunch, and here and there, blacks and whites share tables, in probably the same proportion as one would see in Richmond: small.
In many ways, Johannesburg could be any other cosmopolitan city in the First World. But it is not. The city’s small things say so.
A crumpled black woman sits on the sidewalk shucking and selling corn, called “mealies.” Another on the corner holds a crudely lettered sign advertising hairdressing services of a shop or person somewhere. Others carry bundles on their heads or babies on their backs. On Diagonal Street, Johannesburg’s Wall Street, there’s a bona fide witch doctor’s shop, Kwa-Zulu-Muti, just a stone’s throw from the gleaming, diamond-shaped De Beers headquarters designed by a Chicago architect. Then there’s the ugly reminder that this is not just Africa but South Africa, on signs outside a public restroom indicating which side is for whites and which is for blacks. This is actually an erroneously remaining vestige of a law no longer enforced by the Johannesburg city council, though in other areas, such signs remain.
It is the details, the nooks and crannies of urban South Africa — emphasis on urban, because rural is another story — that illuminate the realities here. The passing scenes of people in day-to-day life become microcosms of this society and the insane situation it has put itself in. Some of these are quite banal; others are extraordinary.
At a concert several weeks ago in Johannesburg’s Market Theater, there was in one room, amid maybe 200 people in the span of several hours, a tiny but complete piece of South Africa, its doom and its hope.
Performing are Johnny Clegg and the band Savuka, who have just recorded a new album in America and are about to launch an international tour. For those who don’t know him: Johnny Clegg is a white Zulu. And for those who don’t appreciate the anachronism implied by the words “white” and “Zulu” used together, a little background is in order.
The Clegg family played native African “kwela” and “mbaqanga” music at home, and when Johnny was about 14, more than 20 years ago, he befriended a Zulu janitor and street musician in Johannesburg and asked him for guitar lessons. This led to his developing a network of black friends and fellow musicians who taught him Zulu songs and dances. They’d play in garages, on rooftops, anywhere they could snatch a few hours. It was a risky undertaking for all of them, with Clegg being arrested more than once for violating the Group Areas Act.
Meanwhile, Clegg formed a close relationship with a Zulu, Sipho Mchunu, which resulted in a wildly successful band, Juluka (Zulu for “sweat”), whose albums turned gold and platinum. In live performances, audiences were astounded at the sight of Clegg and Mchunu doing Zulu dances together, leap for leap. (Seeing Clegg onstage brings to mind the absurd idea of Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jordan in one body.)
Juluka toured the U.S. and Europe in the early ’80s, but the band eventually broke up. By this time, though, Clegg had been fully accepted by the Zulus in rite and ritual — something to which few whites ever aspire, much less achieve.
Now back to the present. Savuka is Clegg’s current band. It’s opening night of the group’s two-week-long gig here, just days after the headlines screamed of new clampdowns on such organizations as the United Democratic Front (the political arm of the African National Congress) and the Detainees’ Parents’ Support Committee, the arrests of Desmond Tutu and Allen Boesak, and the unimpeded march of the blatantly fascist AWB up the steps of the Union Building in Pretoria. There is tension in the room, the caution that comes from self-consciousness. Clegg’s music is no firebrand, but it isn’t apolitical, either.
There’s only a handful of blacks here, perhaps because it is a weeknight and transportation to and from the townships is difficult to come by.
When Clegg begins to play, after an introduction in English and in Zulu, several of the black men rise and begin shouting and dancing almost immediately. A white usher appears just as quickly and asks them to move to the open are behind the chairs, presumably designated for dancing. There is no incident. They just keep dancing.
And what dancing it is! Not on its wildest night has any American disco seen the likes of it. Mostly men, they dance alone, in twos, in threes, each to his own and then responding to one another. Jumping, bending, stooping, undulating. They look like swimmers, then snakes, then human pistons of a powerful engine, oblivious to anything but the music and the movement of their bodies.
The music, African rock, is alternately jaunty and lighthearted, then gentle and pleading. A Zulu song about mothers-in-law draws a particularly rousing response from the dancing men. The ballad “Asimbonanga,” Zulu for “I have not seen him,” is a soulful tribute to Nelson Mandela and others here detained or dead. It brings tacit recognition to the faces of all, black and white, some who sing along, raising clenched fists in salute. By now, many have succumbed to the intoxication of this music and have left their chairs for the dance floor for the remainder of the show.
Witnessing something like this, one young white South African woman remarks, makes one believe there is hope. Even here, through the smoky haze of a music hall, one glimpses this troubled nation’s optimism, its dread, and, in some cases, its apathy. In the middle of the floor, a white woman and a black man embrace, swaying to the music. A few steps away stands a white man, alone, obviously getting the message of the music but somehow unable to respond completely; his hands seem glued in his pockets. The image of him especially is vaguely insidious, a symbol of part of the problem here.
Still, the meaning of the word “savuka” is “we will rise up.” At least the guy with his hands in his pockets is listening. And sooner or later, he’ll have to take his hands out.
Schultz is the author of several books, including “The Bee Cottage Story: How I Made of Muddle of Things and Decorated My Way Back to Happiness.”