Monday, February 26, 2007

Interview with Johnny Clegg

Gazette: Your father took you into the townships when you were 9. What was it about that culture that you seemed to connect with at such a young age?

Clegg: It was more the way he connected with it. He was a crime reporter and he had connected with the most crazy, colourful groups of people in the underworld, but also connected to music, connected to key figures of the community, so he operated as a journalist, writing and interacting with these people. And he was also somebody who wanted to communicate that people were living these amazing lives in the townships. These lives were absolutely incredible - the intensity, the colour, the texture, the paradoxes, the inability to resolve conflicting loyalties. All of this stuff was communicated to me at the age of 7, 8, 9, 10. I became, I suppose, infected with the same passion and interest. It was about real people struggling to overcome real problems, real contradictions. And South Africa was such a contradictory society in the 60s. It was forcefully separated on the one hand, but on the other hand, people would meet at drinking houses, at clubs ...

The African population itself was going through a huge transformation from the rural, tribal world to the modern, urban Western world. And all of these fascinating paradoxes .... part of apartheid's huge negative image abroad was the government's attempt to stop urbanization. They didn't want black people in the cities. They wanted to have what they called feeder locations outside of the white areas. So a southwest township, which later became Soweto, was one of these big feeder populations, which were not supposed to be permanent. They were supposed to be returned...every 11 months, you had to go back to the rural area where you came, get a new labour contract and come back again to Johannesburg. The only problem is, you had people born in Soweto, who never, ever ... you had second and third generation Sowetans, and the government had to accept that this was now permanent dwellings, a permanent city.

These are all the contradictions and all the ironies that the country threw up, and (my father) was interested in that. And he was also a bit of a lunatic, because he would take me to places that were just ...I remember once going with him to...he was covering a feud between two groups in an African church. A young preacher had broken away from the main preacher. I have a very clear recollection of these two groups standing dressed in their Sunday best with rocks in their hands, ready to throw stones. And my dad put me into a police van while he went out to take photographs. And the police guy said to him, "Are you mad? How can you bring a 9-year-old kid?" And my dad was just a total newshound. He said "Don't worry, don't worry. You can sit him in the van. He's done this before. He knows what's going on. You do your job. I'll do my job. You're sitting in the police van. It's no big deal. I'm not going to take this kid back and lose the story." And he just talked his way through it. And I sat in a van and watched these events unfold and how the police went in and separated the groups and he got his story, he got his photographs - and, in a way, I felt like this curtain was always being moved away for me to see the other side of South Africa - by him. It was always this magic ... these moments. And then the curtain was closed because you'd go back into a white area, back into a white school, back into ... you know ... during the week. And so I think I always knew that there was another reality on the other side of town, which, I think, most white kids didn't know. And they didn't care.
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