Nelson Mandela, Johnny Clegg, and a Music Hall in Jo’burg 1988

The morning after Nelson Mandela died, NPR’s Renee Montagne interviewed  a white South African named Johnny Clegg, whose music I’ve listened to and loved since I saw him perform in Johannesburg in 1988.

Johnny Clegg. Photo Kim Sallaway,

It was a bit daring in those days, if not dangerous. The band was racially mixed, the audience was mixed, and it was after curfew. But the laws against such gatherings had by then ceased to be enforced in the city, although rural areas were a different story. There was tension in the room, but of the kind that comes from self-consciousness. Clegg’s music is not incendiary, but it isn’t apolitical either. The weight of history hung heavy in the smoky haze, and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and the end of Apartheid were still two years away.

Clegg’s song, “Asimbonanga,” Zulu for “We Have not Seen Him” stopped me in my tracks and still does.  Years later, at a concert in France, where Clegg is popular and known as le Zulu Blanche performs Asimbonanga and is joined on stage by Mandela. Wow-oh-wow, which is Zulu for wow-oh-wow. Find 5 minutes for this when you can.  It will send you.  

I make it through about two syllables before the tears come. 

The song’s “him” referred to Mandela, as well as the many hims and hers taken away in those dark days of Apartheid, when even having a photograph of Mandela was against the law. Part-ballad, part-anthem, the song’s melody and the harmony of those African voices are deeply stirring. 

“It is music and dancing that makes me at peace with the world,” Mandela says afterward, a phrase much quoted these past few days in the celebration of his life. Oh, and the dancingā€¦ If you have another minuteā€¦ Here is Clegg and a band member doing a  Zulu warrior dance, at London’s Royal Albert Hall. If you ever wondered what Michael Jordan and Bruce Springstein would look like as one person, here it is.

 Back to 1988. I wrote a series of essays about life in Apartheid-era South Africa for Style Weekly, the Richmond, Va., newspaper I worked for in the years prior to my three-month sojourn in South Africa after my first marriage ended. (TMI.)  What strikes me is how the seemingly random hearing of a song–“Asimbonanga”–We Have Not Seen Him–can trigger such a torrent of personal history, yes, but also remind that all our histories are connected, that we are all connected.  Clegg’s lyrics mourn that “We are all islands ’til comes the day/We cross the burning water.” Nelson Mandela connected  those islands. We have seen him. May he live in our hearts.

To read more about Johnny Clegg, here is the Johnny Clegg website. In March of 2014 Clegg and his band are touring North America. Go if you can.


  1. Beautiful post, Frances. I loved how you said that Asimbonanga knocked you back, because that’s exactly what it did for me…and still does. Music has a glorious way of speaking to us and drawing us together. Mandela knew that.
    Thank you for reminding us that we are all connected…

  2. Wow – Both videos of the concerts were inspiring and the joy of Mandela’s smile will be forever. Thanks for sharing such a special moment,

  3. What a beautifully written post, Frances. And your observation of connectedness–specifically how all of our histories are connected is a very good one. Because it is so true, but often forgotten/unrecognized. Thank you—now I am off to listen to that song…

  4. This is a beautiful, inspiring post. It sent me! Thank you so much for sharing this incredible story. Music is one of my favorite gifts to give and receive. I lately have discovered the joy of purchasing gifts of song via itunes for my friends. It is a gift that keeps giving.

  5. Really amazing and wonderful. Sending to friends at the Rothko Chapel, Houston where Mr. Mandela came the year after his release from prison. Thank you.

  6. It’s like watching Jesus dance – which I’m sure he did.
    Would that all our great ones called us to dance together as Mandela does here.
    This post – like so many others, Frances, keeps me handing out those little cards encouraging people to read this blog – so full of heart and soul and beauty and everything that is life.
    Love and blessings.

  7. Happy Holidays Frances,

    I watched the video and felt the happiness and sadness of one of the world’s greatest leaders. Thanks so much for sharing. My only regret as being an owner of a travel agency is that I did not travel to South Africa while he was alive. This is one trip I will certainly make and visit all the places former President Mandela’s footsteps took him.

    See you in May. We are so excited!

    Brenda Fairfax

  8. In a world which seems to be pulling apart, Mandela had a way of bringing people back together. Forgiveness is the most awesome and freeing thing to do….and clearly only the most magnanimous among us could be that big. Thank you for sharing this special man on your blog, Frances.

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