Johnny Clegg, a South African musician who performed in defiance of racial barriers imposed under the country’s apartheid system decades ago and celebrated its new democracy under Nelson Mandela, died Tuesday after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
The Grammy-nominated and British-born singer, 66 sometimes called the “White Zulu” died peacefully at home in Johannesburg with his family there, according to Clegg’s manager, Roddy Quin.
“He fought it to the last second,” Quin told the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
In a statement, South Africa government says that “his music had the ability to unite people across the races …. Clegg has made an indelible mark on the music industry and the hearts of the people.”
One of his best-known songs was “Asimbonanga,” which means “We’ve never seen him” in Zulu. It refers to South Africans during apartheid when images of the then-imprisoned Mandela were banned. Mandela was released in 1990 after 27 years in prison and became South Africa’s first black president in all-race elections four years later.
Among those who sent messages of condolences was political opposition leader Mmusi Maimane who said Clegg “wrote our SA story when our country was at its worst and at its best.”
The Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir also said it was “devastated” by Clegg’s death and called him a “music icon and a true South African.” Fellow musicians posted similar tributes on social media.
The musician performed as late as 2017, high-kicking and stomping during a tour called “The Final Journey” while his cancer was in remission.
The performer was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, and the grueling treatment included two six-month sessions of chemotherapy and an operation.
“I don’t have a duodenum and half my stomach. I don’t have a bile duct. I don’t have a gall bladder and half my pancreas. It’s all been reconfigured,” he told reporters in 2017.
Clegg leaves behind his wife, Jennifer, and their two sons, one of whom is popular rock musician Jesse Clegg.