In Loving Memory: Johnny Clegg

Posted on February 2, 2021


I was working on my ABCs of Black History calendar, and I googled a song that is a demand for the end of White minority rule over the majority of Black South Africans, Johnny Clegg and Savuka’s anthem, “One (Hu)man, One Vote…”

And I was moved to tears as I realized how closely recent events have brought the USA to a similar situation, when a minority coalition of white supremacists and Christian Nationalists tried to overturn the results of a free and fair presidential election. I remember the anguish I felt for non-white South Africans who were denied a voice in the government that determined the conditions of their lives, which were, by law, subhuman in far too many instances. I remember my ELATION at the end of apartheid and at the idea that FINALLY, South Africans would have representative democracy: one person, one vote.

As usual, I didn’t remember the year that South Africa got the Vote, so I scrolled down to the description, and not finding the information, I scrolled into the comments, and to my horror, I discovered that Johnny Clegg had died in 2019–of the same vicious disease, pancreatic cancer, that killed my two beloved sisters in 2020. Like sister Karen, Johnny was 66 when he died–too early. I was not only horrified that he’d died, but that I was only just finding out. Now tears started anew.

If you don’t know about Clegg’s music and the role he played in fighting apartheid, his obit in The Guardian describes him this way:

Johnny Clegg…was a white singer-songwriter who became a national hero in South Africa by using music to defy the apartheid-era segregation laws. He challenged the authorities by forming mixed-race bands, performing to both black and white audiences, and mixing Zulu influences into songs that brought him international success. Known as the “white Zulu” or umlungu omnyama (“the black white person”), he spoke fluent Zulu and was an energetic and skillful exponent of Zulu dance.

He was best known for the poignant, stirring 1987 anthem “Asimbonanga” (We have not seen him), a tribute to Nelson Mandela, who was then still in jail, and to other key figures of the anti-apartheid struggle. Twelve years later, soon after he stepped down as president, Mandela joined Clegg on stage in Frankfurt as he was performing the song, in one of the most emotional scenes in political pop history.

Long before I knew any language for the role that Clegg played in his community, I recognized a role model for myself in him, and I determined to be “that kind of White person,” “that kind” of White teacher. My former students can judge if I achieved my goal as a classroom teacher, but my desire and determination to be that kind of White person remain a driving force after leaving the classroom, in my work as a writer, educator, and community member.

And now, as the USA fights to keep our democracy out of the hands of a minority of White supremacist theocrats, Clegg’s “One (Hu)man, One Vote” takes on new meaning for me. After being a reminder of the great struggle and the SA lives lost in the fight, the song suddenly sounds different in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S Capitol. Do you hear that?

As Americans, let’s embrace this South African anthem as our own, and sing it LOUD, and sing it with FEELING, until, we have insured that each person in this nation is represented in a democratically elected government–by one person, one vote.

(April 26, 1994, was South Africa’s first all-race election. It was my first year–of twenty-five–as a high school English teacher at Adrian High School.)

lisa eddy is a writer and editor for-hire, researcher, educator-for-hire, youth advocate,  musician, and gardener.

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