/ 15 March 1996

Another chapter in The Full Story

Reunited with Sipho Mchunu for just one concert, Johnny Clegg succumbs to nostalgia, and celebrates change, in conversation with HAZEL FRIEDMAN

IF there exists a single structure which encapsulates the apartheid era in all its banal brutality, it is the George Goch hostel in Jeppestown. A concrete monolith housing male, Zulu-speaking migrant workers, the drab edifice is enlivened only by shouts of laughter coming from the match-box windows, and the squatter shacks that have sprouted just beyond the razor-wire boundary, like weeds through pavement cracks.

This is familiar turf to Johnny Clegg. But tonight his visit has an edge of urgency. He has come to recruit “soldiers” from the hostel’s dance teams to join The Full Story – — Clegg and Sipho Mchunu’s one-off concert in Johannesburg, to be held on March 20.

The mission is not proceeding as planned.

Earlier, Clegg attempts to rehearse at the Mega Music Warehouse with the Meadowlands Choir, only to discover their Zulu pronunciation fails to match the rich timbres of their vocal chords. In a rousing rendition of Asimbonanga, Clegg almost succeeds in transforming the urbane, Sotho-speaking choir into rough-edged, melodic impis. He coaxes them with a display of street-swaggering Zulu, peppering it with a chorus of “sex, drugs, rock’n’roll” and weaving the melody through the circle of earnest minstrels. The pitch rises and the pace quickens in time to his rhythmic foot-stomping and finger-clicking.

“Uh no, guys, you draw out the syllables too much. They’ve got to be sharper, more clipped.”

It is one of those delicious ironies that an English-speaking white boy should be instructing homeboys how to sing — if not in their own tongue, then in one they are familiar with.

It is an irony that is enthusiastically embraced by Clegg. Anthropologist by day, impi by night, businesman, muso, husband, father, Zimbabwe-born struggle brat, white Zulu, cultural hero, he and Mchunu changed the face of South African pop at a time when apartheid contrived to keep their cultures apart. These are epithets which Clegg accepts — in a shrugging, good-humoured sort of way — and eschews, because they cannot encapsulate the contradictions that colour his life.

“When I was lecturing in the anthroplogy department at Wits,” he recalls, “there was this expectation that, as a progressive person, one would be capable of uniting all the conflicting sides of oneself and becoming a truly integrated adult,” he says. “But, for me, that is impossible. I have learnt, rather, to accept the fragments and the changes.

“There is a part of myself that identifies with the life of a migrant worker and the accompanying sense of dislocation and displacement.”

Which goes some of the way towards explaining the rationale behind his official musical reunion with Mchunu. It is not, he insists, simply a nostalgic attempt to rediscover romanticised roots, or to recapture the glorious epoch when Juluka articulated and symbolised the pain of apartheid and the joy of breaking down barriers of race class and culture.

Clegg explains: “Sipho and I have come together again because, although the bond has never been broken, we want to make the most of the choices and changes. Most importantly, we want to try out the magic again, to see if it still works.”

Sitting outside the George Goch hostel, Clegg speaks about the exhilaration of change, and the new challenges ahead.

“Before, the type of songs we sang were of necessity determined by apartheid, but there’s an incredible sense of liberation in being able to sing about the contradictions of daily life, about anything. Obviously there has been a loss of innocence in the process. We also tend to romanticise the epoch in which we discovered most about ourselves. In retrospect though, it remains just like any other epoch.”

He adds: “This concert will be completely different to the old ones, with a 15-man dance troupe, a 20-piece big-voiced choir, as well as state-of-the-art lighting and staging.”

But alongside Clegg’s enthusiasm is an unmistakable note of anxiety. His desire to recruit a 15-man dance team from the hostel has run into a potentially serious snag. The migrant elders are demanding a meeting that will decide — less than a week before the show — whether Clegg’s request will be met. At the core of the problem are rivalries between the hostels along the East Rand. George Goch houses most of the dancers, but Jeppe hostel is the domain of the Zulu elders, and in order to get permission to recruit and train the dancers, Clegg has to travel to Benoni hostel to negotiate with a 20-strong committee.

After a lengthy session of “quietly probing but repectful questions” conducted over litres of Coke and Lemon Twist, an elated Clegg reports that the committee has agreed to let him use the dancers of his choice. It is then that the other Cleggs melt away, and Clegg the Zulu impi merges with the anthropologist.

“Meeting this hostel committee reinforces how traditional hierarchies, structures and codes of honour enable people to carry on, to keep themselves intact. These men come from an enclave in Natal that has been all but forgotten in the process of change. And they are trying desperately to hold on to and perpetuate their beliefs in order to make sense of a changing world. They are men of honour who want nothing more — not even a percentage of the money I pay the dancers — than the knowledge that their dancers will be acknowledged and treated well.”

He continues: “This process has been like a time warp, like the days of Juluka when we had to fight to prevent the venues we were performing at from closing down, and negotiate our way through every song and concert. I’d almost forgotten about what it was like, what energy it took and generated to play in those days. How wonderful it was.”

The Full Story is at the Standard Bank Arena in Johannesburg on March 20