NDERITU: 'White Zulu' Johnny Clegg helped keep the anti-apartheid struggle alive

Wednesday July 31 2019

South African singer Johnny Clegg performs during the 20th edition of the World Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Morocco on June 16, 2014. He was consistently in trouble with apartheid-era authorities, accused of breaking the laws of racial segregation with his mixed-race bands and audiences. PHOTO | FADEL SENNA | AFP


The news of the death of anti-apartheid hero Umlungu Omnyama (the black white person) came while we discussed the Nicolas Champeaux and Giles Porte South African documentary, The State Against Mandela & Others. Johnny Clegg, for that was his real name, died two days before the world celebrated Mandela Day on July 18.

Clegg and others like him, kept imprisoned Mandela and other anti-apartheid heroes’ names alive through defying music. Clegg, who spoke and sang in fluent Zulu, was consistently in trouble with apartheid-era authorities, accused of breaking the laws of racial segregation with his mixed-race bands and audiences.

It is just two decades since we sang along to Clegg’s hauntingly moving song Asimbonanga, banned in South Africa for political reasons. We did not understand the words, yet we knew the song, with its mentions of Mandela and Steve Biko as deeply meaningful.


Docubox and Alliance Française screened The State Against Mandela & Others in Nairobi for free. It’s based on recovered sound archives of the historic Rivonia trial in 1963 and 1964. It tells the story of those tried with Nelson Mandela. They were as racially mixed as Clegg’s band and audiences — Jewish South African Lionel Bernstein; architect and member of the South African Communist Party, Denis Goldberg; a Cape Town Engineer and leader of the Congress of Democrats, Arthur Goldreich; Harold Wolpe, prominent lawyer and activist; James Kantor, brother in law to Harold Wolpe; Englishman Bob Hepple; an Indian Muslim Ahmed Kathrada; Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba all Xhosa; Elias Motsoaledi, trade unionist and ANC member, and Andrew Mlangeni both Pedi; and Walter Sisulu who, with an English father and a Xhosa mother, was classified as coloured.

The nail-biting cross-examination soon makes it clear the South African apartheid state, and not the accused, was on trial. With political meetings banned, the accused had been operating in secret. In the dock, they finally had the opportunity to speak to the world about the horrors of apartheid.


The courtroom scenes are brought alive by the reactions of the three survivors, Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and their lawyers George Bizos and Joel Joffe. Wearing headphones, the three survivors hear their confrontations with the apartheid prosecutor 57 years ago for the first time.

No film footage of the trial exists and the documentary shows the trial in 2D animation. Winnie Mandela, Sylvia Neame, Toni Strasburg and Max Sisulu, son of Walter Sisulu, also participate.


The Apartheid State framed the case as “the State against Nelson Mandela and the others.” The accused brilliantly turn the tables on the state, portraying the ANC in court as a collective movement and choosing Mandela as the man who would embody their struggle to the world. For their action to resonate, they refuse to appeal their sentences.

I met Kathrada before he died and was struck by how often the history we don't learn from is repeated. Champeaux says, “there seems to be an overriding cruelty which stops people from coming together. It’s an ill that we thought was well behind us but it rises up far too often.”

Porte talks of Kathrada’s description of sitting in a café in Europe without fear of arrest as heart-wrenching and a reminder of immigrants “I come across all the time at Porte de la Chapelle in Paris. I am struck by the resonance because of what is happening today in Europe.”

My co-panellist at the screening Lucas Kimathi of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights contrasted the purposeful crowds that supported the Rivonia accused outside the courtroom with the ones he sees at Kenyan political rallies.

When politicians finish speaking, crowds shout “saucer, saucer!” Now “saucer” is what you say at local eateries, when you still have some vegetable left and the ugali is gone. The extra ugali comes on a saucer. When the crowd shouts “saucer” to a politician, they are asking for more, and they get it; hate speech against opponents served unscripted, marinated in stereotypes and spiced with insults.

Wairimū Nderitū is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mũkami Kĩmathi, Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides, [email protected]