Johnny Clegg

Diagnosed: April 2015
Survivor: Still Fighting The Courageous Battle

Written By Debra Gelbart
September 20, 2018

A Seasoned Warrior—With A Heart For Helping Others

One could argue that Johnny Clegg has lived multiple lifetimes. In South Africa and around the world, his fans know him primarily as a prolific singer-songwriter of music that’s South African Zulu-inspired and African pop. But he’s also a passionate activist for social justice who has known since he was a young teenager that he wanted to speak out and fight on behalf of the downtrodden and the oppressed.

He has blended his activism with his music; in 1997, he danced onstage with Nelson Mandela while performing in Germany. There, he got to sing a song directly to Mandela that he had composed decades before in Mandela’s honor. Called “Asimbonanga,” it translates from Zulu to “We haven’t seen him,” and is an homage to Mandela during the years when the South African leader was imprisoned and his image was banned across the country.

Johnny has been named a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) and a Knight of Arts and Letters by the French government. He’s been trained as an anthropologist and has met several European heads of state. Born in Britain, he has lived in Zimbabwe and Zambia, in addition to South Africa.

And now he’s advocating for finding a cure for pancreatic cancer, because in April of 2015 he became a survivor, too.

At 65, he’s fit, has kept the spring in his step and the twinkle in his eye. He’s a lightning bolt of optimism and sage advice as he continues to entertain audiences. “Everyone battling pancreatic cancer has to have ‘inkani yempilo,’ Zulu for ‘the stubborn determination to live,’” said Johnny, who has lived in South Africa since the mid-1960s.

Relishing Camaraderie

When he recently traveled from his home in Johannesburg, South Africa to attend the annual Seena Magowitz Foundation Annual Golf Classic for the first time (it was held in Boston in 2018), Johnny was delighted to find that other pancreatic cancer warriors have the same stubborn determination to survive. But he was also fascinated that each has their own story. “I really appreciate the opportunity to meet them and talk to them and share their experiences and get an idea of their struggle. The struggle is very personal and at times a lonely thing, even if your family is there with you. Because you’re the guy who’s got it.”

He’s kept his sense of humor and his perspective. “I call the cancer my tenant—which I cannot expel. I’d like to kick him out, but I can’t. Everybody develops their own idea of what it is and how to conceptualize it. These are little tricks that I use. I say to my wife, ‘My tenant is busy today. I’ve got neuropathy today from the chemo.’”

Honesty and Authenticity

He’s been upfront with his fans about his health challenges. “I made a decision to post my condition on my Facebook fan page and just give a history,” he said. “It’s a desire to say, look, this has happened to me; I’m not special. This is the cancer lottery. I mean, it just happens. It’s a random thing that’s happened, right? I’ve had to cancel some of my tours while I went through chemo. That’s why I’m not around. I had kept silent until then and I thought, it’s not real. I want to be real.”

He said he appreciates how genuine the Seena Magowitz Foundation event to raise awareness and funds for pancreatic cancer research is, especially for pancreatic cancer survivors. “I’m grateful information is getting out there and that the Foundation is celebrating the survivors.”

He has undergone a Whipple procedure and three courses of chemotherapy, the third of which he completed just three weeks before the event in Boston. Though Johnny is being treated in South Africa, Erkut Borazanci, M.D., a leading pancreatic cancer clinician and researcher with the Translational Genomic Research Institute in Phoenix, is consulting with Johnny’s doctors about his care. The Phoenix area “has figured prominently in new ideas and new therapies,” Johnny said, referring to TGEN and the HonorHealth Research Institute at the Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center in Scottsdale, where Dr. Borazanci sees patients.

And though Johnny finished chemotherapy less than a month before going to Boston, he had the energy and drive to perform for an enthusiastic, grateful audience there.

“You have to accept that you’re dealing with this cancer,” he said. “Your life takes a turn. You have to incorporate it. Instead of just saying, ‘Okay, I’m done for,’ you say, ‘Keep on doing what you’re doing.’ I’m carrying on with my music.” He’s also in the process of writing a memoir.

Part of his book will focus on his decades-long anti-apartheid activism and his efforts to make medication available to AIDS sufferers in South Africa, where until 2004, the country’s government denied that AIDS had become a public health emergency.

Not Getting Sidelined

Today, in the sunlight of a democratic and equal South Africa, Johnny is a cultural ambassador for his country. As much as he can, he continues to put on concerts for his fans all over the globe. In fact, in October of 2017, two and a half years after he was diagnosed, Johnny was performing at a sold-out venue in San Diego. A mutual friend brought Roger Magowitz, founder of the Seena Magowitz Foundation, to see Johnny perform there. Roger was so moved by Johnny’s story that he connected him with Dr. Borazanci, so Johnny could be assured he was receiving the most effective, comprehensive treatment plan available. And it was Roger’s persuasive invitation that brought Johnny to the Magowitz Foundation event in Boston.

Little has slowed Johnny down significantly.” I’m dancing, I’m singing, I’m writing. I put out a new album this year and it went to number one on the Canadian world music charts. It’s also being released in France.”

It’s important for everyone, he emphasized, but perhaps especially for pancreatic cancer warriors, “to have something you’re actively involved with to give you a sense of being centered.”

Johnny Clegg Video (Asimbonanga) With Nelson Mandela 1999

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