I had a good Zulu vocabulary, but I couldn’t put the words together. It all clicked when Sipho Mchunu came into my life because Sipho couldn’t speak English. He was a total traditionalist and he had a great sense of humour. In the end I learnt Zulu through humour and music. He had heard about me from Charlie Mzila’s cousin, who from some weird fate worked next to him. Sipho said, “I heard there was this white boy singing and playing guitar?” One day he looked me up. He arrived at my flat in Muller Street in Bellevue, Johannesburg. I came home from school on my bike and there was this guy waiting outside the flat. He said that he wanted to compete with me.
He had heard about me and because it’s a competitive field, he wanted to see if I was for real. So in 1969 Sipho challenged me to a guitar duel. And he was far better than I was. So there he was, standing outside my flat with his guitar. It was incredible. I’ll never forget that guitar. It had mirrors, plastic soldiers stuck on to it with glue, beadwork, reflectors – standard stuff, and inverted bottle caps. The guitar was incredible. He came into my life and now he’s my oldest friend.
Sipho was a gardener. He left home when he was nine when his father died. Then he went to Durban and finally to Johannesburg. For him the world was a frontier. Look at his life. He’s a pioneer. There are no models or set roles that he played. He created his life. Sipho landed up becoming an incredible visionary in his own right. He’s built two schools for his community. He’s got 35 children, one of them a son in France. He has toured the world and he started out not being able to read or write. He never saw a white person until he was about seven or eight. It was the last generation of black people who were far removed from white contact. He came out of that and landed on Good Morning America and appearing on television in Germany. It’s a huge distance to travel. For me the important thing about Sipho was his sense of humour. He could make me laugh. I understand the syntax of his humour. He had to say one word and we are rolling on the floor. There was no holy cow that could not be pulled down and analysed. Nothing was sacred.
He’s also a great commentator on human foibles, particularly when people act out of some kind of fear. He’s amazing in capturing things. I remember the first two or three years with him. We just laughed and did crazy things. We got into trouble. We got arrested. He had an incredible curiosity in his own right. Already I was bigger than my actual accomplishments. People were fascinated by the concept of a white boy who crossed over into tribal urban culture, who was dancing and stick fighting and playing guitar, who was seen in the shebeens and on the rooftops with migrant workers – playing maskandi music. I was a well-established personality, getting arrested and harassed by caretakers. My Zulu praise name, Madlebe (Big Ears) later referred to these incidents: “They hate you in Killarney, they hate you in the flats, you are hated by caretakers. They hate anyone who eat pap with the people.”
Johnny Clegg (7 June 1953-16 July 2019); South African musician, social anthropologist, white Zulu, French knight, bridge builder, patriot and cultural treasure.