Johnny Clegg

Diagnosed: April 2015
Legacy Hero: Lost The Battle July 19, 2019

Written By Debra Gelbart
August 1, 2019

A note from Roger Magowitz, founder of the Seena Magowitz Foundation: The loss of Johnny Clegg was a sad day for all of us. His entire life was inspiring and unifying, especially during the apartheid period in South Africa. His music will be with us forever, not only for the world to enjoy but to continually remind us of his lifelong dedication to bringing people together. Below is an updated profile of him, first posted in 2018 after the Seena Magowitz Foundation’s 16 th Annual Golf Classic:

A Seasoned Warrior—With A Heart For Helping Others

By Debra Gelbart

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

He 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 was 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 was trained as an anthropologist and met several European heads of state. Born in Britain, he lived in Zimbabwe and Zambia, in addition to South Africa.

In April of 2015 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But he kept the spring in his step and the twinkle in his eye. He was a lightning bolt of optimism and sage advice as he continued to entertain audiences. “Everyone battling pancreatic cancer has to have ‘inkani yempilo,’ Zulu for ‘the stubborn determination to live,’” said Johnny, who had lived in South Africa since the mid-1960s.

Relishing Camaraderie

When he 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 that he had. 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 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.”

Honesty and Authenticity

He was 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.”

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.”

A Continuing Legacy

In the sunlight of a democratic and equal South Africa, Johnny was a cultural ambassador for his country. As much as he could, he continued 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 invited him to the Magowitz Foundation event in Boston.

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

Johnny Clegg Video (Asimbonanga) With Nelson Mandela 1999

Pin It