In 1999, singer-songwriter Johnny Clegg performed his legendary "Asimbonanga" in Frankfurt and Nelson Mandela took to the stage in person. He is back in Germany on tour and is working on an autobiography and a musical.
In 1987 as protests against apartheid were erupting on to the streets of South Africa and Nelson Mandela was spending his 23rd year in prison, a white singer recorded a song in Zulu called "Asimbonanga" meaning "We haven't seen him." It was the first song that openly called for Mandela's release. It was an instant hit and was banned by the South African government. The singer was Johnny Clegg. "It made me sad to see South Africans shooting each other," he told DW. "That's why I wrote this song. The message I wanted to convey was - who will be able to reunite us? That person could only be Mandela," he said.
More than a decade later at a concert in Frankfurt, Mandela was able to thank him in person. When Johnny Clegg and his band performed Asimbonanga, Mandela himself took to the stage and began dancing. He asked why wasn't anybody else dancing."Let's hear that song once again," Mandela said. Clegg found it all overwhelming, one of the greatest moments of his life.
Writing an autobiography and a musical
Known in South Africa as the "The White Zulu," Clegg has been interested in Zulu music since the age of 15. In 1969 he formed a band with the black musician Sipho Mchunu. Because of the apartheid legislation, their choice of venues was very restricted, they could only perform in churches or at private functions. With his music, Johnny Clegg supported the struggle against the apartheid regime. His two bands Juluka and Savuka are multi-ethnic. Juluka's "Scatterlings" was an international success and climbed right to the top of the French charts. "That song was important for my career," said the musician. "That's why it is rather special."
Johnny Clegg is currently working on an autobiography of the years he spent with Juluka. He wants to have it finished by June. "It's not that easy. It's difficult to remember why I felt certain things or took certain decisions." It is far simpler to tell somebody face to face what happened, rather than to sit down alone and write it all down. He is also composing a musical about his life. "There will be a Johnny, a Sipho and even my wife will put in an appearance. But we're not yet sure which actors will play which parts," he said laughing. The premiere is scheduled for December 2014.
But that is by no means everything. Johnny Clegg appears tireless, full of energy and determination. As well as his artistic activities, he also runs a recycling business for household refuse and electronic waste. "I wanted to be active in a sphere of business in which I can do something about pollution. It's also an investment for the future, when I'm older and can't leap around the stage as much as I can today," he said.
Clegg spent six months researching the project. "We've developed software so that everybody can trace what has happened to the products which we have recycled, can see what they have been turned into." It could be a cup or a plate. People are pleased to hear that the things they used haven't simply landed on the rubbish tip.
But at sixty, Johnny Clegg is still young and agile enough to shine as a performer, whether in Karlsuhe for German fans on November 14, 2013, or in a new album with 14 songs from his long career, due to be released in December.