Pollak: Anti-Apartheid Musician Johnny Clegg Refused to Denounce Israel

Johnny Clegg (AFP / Getty)
AFP / Getty

South African musician Johnny Clegg died Tuesday at the age of 66, after a long and valiant fight against pancreatic cancer. He was celebrated by family, friends, and fans from South Africa and around the world.

In his 40-year career, Clegg brought traditional African music and dance into contemporary pop. National Public Radio (NPR) called him a “uniting force against apartheid.” He was a South African hero — and also, quietly, a member of the Jewish people.

I have a minor family connection to Clegg’s music. Clegg learned to play Zulu guitar and concertina from Sipho Mchunu, who was working as a gardener in Johannesburg. My maternal great-uncle, Jonah Perkel, was a successful accountant who built a large home in the leafy Houghton neighborhood, along with an unusually large separate home for his domestic workers. (He joked that he would need a nice place to live in when the revolution finally came.)

Uncle Jonah looked the other way when, on Sundays, the staff operated an illicit tavern — a shebeen — out of the servants’ quarters. He also left the front gate unlocked: in contrast to his neighbors, he never built high walls or electrified fences, even during the worst of the crime wave of the 1990s.

It was there that Clegg and Mchunu would jam together, working out their material long before they formed the Juluka band and went on to global success.

(Update: My cousin, Rephael Mendel Perkel, commented on Facebook:

A point of correction: Joel’s reference to my late father (Jonah Perkel)’s home as the venue for Johnny’s and Sipho’s jam sessions in the early days is inaccurate. Sipho worked as a live-in gardener/domestic worker for my father’s close friend Ted Back, who lived in the same affluent suburb. It was there that they they regularly met to jam and dance together. In the 80s and early 90s Ted would often visit my parents’ home on weekends and would sometime reminisce about Johnny and Sipho’s activities in the back yard at his house.

Hence the family lore.)

I was born in Johannesburg in 1977, but my parents had been planning to emigrate to the United States, and left eight weeks later. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, with little connection to South Africa other than what I saw of the anti-apartheid struggle on the evening news.

But when I discovered Clegg’s music in the late 1980s, I became fascinated with my native country. His music partly inspired my journey there as a Rotary scholar in 2000; I stayed nearly seven years.

South African singer Jonny Clegg performs during the 20th edition of the World Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Morocco, on June 16 ,2014. AFP PHOTO / FADEL SENNA (Photo by FADEL SENNA / AFP) (FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images)

South African singer Johnny Clegg (C) and dancers of South African band Savuka perform on stage on May 11, 1988 at the Zenith concert hall in Paris as part of three-concert series dedicated to the fight against apartheid. (BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)

During that time, the second intifada exploded in the Middle East. I had studied at a yeshiva in Jerusalem before leaving for South Africa, and the collapse of negotiations was a shock to me: I was a left-wing true believer in the prospect of peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

But even more shocking was the vicious anti-Israel sentiment I witnessed in South Africa, which was endorsed by the new post-apartheid government that I had, until then, admired.

One of the ministers in that government, Ronnie Kasrils, happened to be Jewish. He launched a petition urging fellow Jews to oppose the Israeli government. Some of the most prominent veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle — where Jews had been disproportionately represented — signed the statement.

A few — notably, former communist Pauline Podbrey — refused to sign, citing Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself against mass terrorism by Palestinians.

Another who did not sign was Clegg.

In 2003, I was invited to join a delegation of media activists on a tour of Israel. Somewhat to the irritation of the organizers, my colleague Theo Schkolne and I insisted on hearing from all sides; we organized a separate day-long tour of the newly-constructed security barrier in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) with B’Tselem, the left-wing Israeli human rights group. (What we learned actually reinforced our pro-Israel views.)

On the way bank, in the midst of the chaos at Ben-Gurion Airport, I saw a familiar face. It was Johnny Clegg. By then, I had seen him perform several times, but had never had a chance to meet him.

Theo and I maneuvered to sit next to him on the eight-hour journey from Tel Aviv back to Johannesburg, and we chatted most of the way. He had been visiting family in Israel: he had a sister in Jerusalem who had become deeply religious and moved there.

One of the things Clegg told us was that Kasrils and his group had approached him and pressured him to sign their petition. He had quietly refused to do so. He felt the issue was more complex; moreover, he had some feeling toward Israel as a spiritual homeland.

That was not part of his public persona: his mission was to cross the apartheid boundaries, and to bring others along with him, in both directions.

But Clegg took primordial ties — of all kinds — seriously, including his own, even if his relationship to Judaism was distant. He would not join those who tried to impose an apartheid template on Israel. He rejected the idea that South African liberation logically required rejecting the right of Jews to self-determination. The two were complementary, not contradictory, causes.

Johnny Clegg will be remembered by most as the “white Zulu.” But he was also a remarkable Jewish soul.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He earned an A.B. in Social Studies and Environmental Science and Public Policy from Harvard. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. He is also the co-author of How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, which is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

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