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Clegg’s autobiography brings readers into his crazy, beautiful world

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Lifestyle

If you ever wanted to sit at the feet of the late, great Johnny Clegg, hearing tales of his early years in his own unique voice, you now have that opportunity. Although Clegg passed away in 2019, he began writing about his life in the years prior to his death. The result is the newly released Scatterling of Africa, which is his “origin story” in his own words.

“It’s a hugely surreal moment for us and a joy to share our dad’s incredible story with the world. It has been a long journey to get to this point, and we are honoured and proud to be able to finally release it,” says his son, Jesse Clegg, in an interview with the SA Jewish Report.

The past few years have been “an emotionally challenging period to be without our dad, especially considering the circumstances we find ourselves in the world”, says his younger son, Jaron Clegg. “We are, however, hugely comforted and feel his presence when we see his music and storytelling connect with people. This book was a way for us to share his presence again and working on it was cathartic because it felt like he was with us as we were making our way through his journey.”

Clegg was known as Le Zoulou Blanc and didn’t emphasise his Jewish identity, and yet the book shows how his life was “book ended” by two very Jewish life-cycle events. We are introduced to his overbearing grandfather, Harry Braudo, who insisted that Clegg have a Brit Milah even though his biological father wasn’t Jewish. This moment and Braudo’s decisions at the time reverberate across the generations.

Then, on the second page of the book, the Clegg family thanks the Chevrah Kadisha for its support over the very difficult period of Clegg’s passing. And so, in birth and death, Clegg was bound to Judaism. In between, as he writes, there were moments when he wrestled with his Jewish identity as well as the question of whether one can change identities, finding a home in another community that welcomes you as one of its own sons.

“An anthropologist by training, our dad always had a curiosity and appreciation for all cultures and religions,” says Jesse. “With Judaism, there were many principles and values that he respected deeply and connected us to as his children. Sometimes we would light the Shabbos candles and he would explain the symbolism around the traditions, and we also had Barmitzvahs. Our family has always had a connection to the Jewish community, and we are grateful for the support and compassion we’ve received.”

Although it can be unsettling to read the writings of someone whose early death remains so raw, Clegg’s voice shines through from the very first word in the most comforting way. He takes us into his childhood memories and teenage explorations with a gentle hand, as if to say “come, let me show you something wonderful”. He talks about how both he and his mother had an almost naïve fearlessness and boundless curiosity, which allowed him to follow a path that none had treaded before.

Asked how the book came together, Jaron explains that his father “chose to focus on his formative years, as it was these years that were so important in shaping his journey as an artist and as a human. It came together sporadically in moments and short vignettes and stories that he would write down as they came to him, and it continued like that until the end. When he passed, we were left with a beautiful collection of anecdotes and memories and so our job, with the editor, was to order and structure the text into a cohesive narrative. With that said, our main priority was that everything was in his own words and nothing was altered from the original text.”

“We had never heard some of these stories before!” says Jesse. “He goes into incredible detail about his family life, his connection to music, and his connection to Zulu culture and South Africa in general.”

In many accounts, Clegg’s stepfather, journalist Dan Pienaar’s decision to take the young Clegg with him to the townships, is credited with kindling his interest in Zulu culture. But in the book, we see that many more forces were at play, including Clegg’s initiative, drive, and joy in discovering a new world – often at great risk. He describes the impact Pienaar’s approach to life had on him in many ways, especially during the year they spent in Zambia. Linked to this are other fascinating stories, such as how Pienaar kidnapped Clegg’s stepsister and went to Australia.

Asked how Zulu culture featured in their lives, Jesse says, “We spent many weekends in Zululand growing up, so we were very exposed to this world and experienced the magical community. We certainly hold dear the Zulu culture and way of life. We visit Sipho Mchunu’s homestead in Makhabaleni often, and reminisce about the life he shared with our father. And every time we drive down, as the Tugela River Valley opens up, it’s like a doorway into another world. This is part of the magic of the place our dad came to love and live by.”

Having access to their father’s story after his passing “is a gift for us as a family because of how strong his voice is and how clearly he comes across”, says Jaron. “We feel especially lucky to have this piece of him as we move forward, something that we can tangibly hold on to and read through whenever we want to hear his voice.”

In the cast of characters we are introduced to in the book, Clegg’s mother, Muriel, plays an important part. “Muriel, or ‘Gogo’ as we used to call her, was a strong and eccentric woman who had a massive role in our dad’s life,” says Jesse. “She championed him in many ways especially in his music career. Of course, she wasn’t without her own troubles and traumas and some of that baggage was carried by our dad throughout his life. To us, she was a good grandmother who read to us all the time and introduced us to the magic of poetry, storytelling, and karate.”

The Clegg sons carry the surname of their father’s biological dad, Dennis Clegg, who their father wasn’t allowed to meet until he was 21. “Without a father, there certainly was a void in his life growing up, and in a way, it reinforced his connection to the Zulu culture as their masculine values as well as their music and dance gave him the tools to father himself,” says Jaron.

“My brother and I did get to meet Dennis, and in fact, we spent a few holidays with him. He would come down to South Africa to visit us, and we always enjoyed seeing him. He was a very kind and gentle man, and incredibly funny. He could also talk to dogs!”

They hope the book “will give people an intimate look at the man behind the music, a glimpse into the world that shaped him and people who championed his journey. For us, our dad’s life serves as testament to human connection against all odds, and the incredible power of music and dance to transcend our differences. We feel honoured and proud to be able to share it with the world.”

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Bnei Akiva to make machaneh magic

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Bnei Akiva has decided to hold a long-awaited machaneh this December. “It’s time to start the next page in the story of Bnei Akiva South Africa,” says Rosh Machaneh Yoni Rosenthal. Called Daf Chadash (A new page), the machaneh will run from 8 to 20 December 2021.

“Throughout the year, we have been monitoring the COVID-19 situation to assess our options,” Rosenthal says. “The vaccine announcement for the 12 to 17 age group pushed us to approach our medical advisors and stakeholders to see if we could make machaneh on our campsite in Hartenbos a reality.”

He says the fact that they can hold a machaneh “is extremely emotional. The campsite is a place of magic. We are excited to make up for lost time. We are truly grateful that Hashem is giving us this opportunity.”

Not being able to have a machaneh or gather in person “was heart breaking for our channichim, madrichim and community,” says Rosenthal. “I’m proud that through the dedication of our madrichim, we have carried on thriving over the past 18 months.”

The camp’s leadership is in discussion with medical professionals to create a safe environment. “We have been working on our COVID-19 protocols with the guidance of Professor Barry Schoub, Dr Richard Friedland, and Uriel Rosen. We will test for COVID-19 before and during camp, creating a campsite ‘bubble’, and requiring all of our channichim, madrichim, and staff to be vaccinated. The safety of our channichim and madrichim is our number one priority,” he says.

“We have had to adapt our machaneh to COVID-19 times, but much of machaneh will be as we know and love it,” says Rosenthal. “Our chinnuch [education] team is working hard to ensure that our tochniot, Torah learning, and davening experiences will be of the highest quality. Our famous volleyball, soccer, and netball tournaments will bring gees [spirit] to the campsite, we will be going to the beach and pool daily, and the camp vibe will be incredible as always!

“There are certain things that we have had to adapt, such as our ruach (spirit) sessions,” he says. “We are considering how these can be done in the safest way possible.”

They are hoping that a fourth wave doesn’t prevent machaneh from happening. “Ultimately, the safety of our channichim is our priority. Should there be a fourth wave, we would consult our medical advisors and in the worst-case scenario, might have to cancel.”

The feedback to the announcement has been overwhelmingly positive. “Madrichim are fired up, and there is real excitement that Bnei Akiva is able to provide much-needed inspiration for Jewish youth.”

Meanwhile, after announcing last week that it would hold a machaneh, Habonim Dror has expanded its dates, allowed channichim to reserve their spots, and given permission for the youngest age group, Shtilim, to attend. The new dates are 12 to 27 December. Each shichvah (year level) will have a maximum of 50 people (except Shtilim, which will have 40). The camp is almost at capacity.

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Habonim’s return to machaneh ‘a dream come true’

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The Habonim Dror slogan “Don’t call us thy children, call us thy builders”, rang true this week, when the Jewish Zionist youth movement announced that it would hold a machaneh this December, taking the brave step of building something new and vibrant in a post-pandemic world. Machanot were cancelled last year for the first time in decades – a huge blow to movement morale.

In a video titled simply, “We are going home”, Habonim announced on Sunday, 17 October, that after 23 months of waiting, a machaneh will finally be held at its Onrus campsite. It will be called “Lachlom Mechadash” (To Dream Again) because the movement sees it as a dream come true. It will be shorter (from 9 to 20 December), with fewer people, and everyone will need to be vaccinated.

Rosh Machaneh Aaron Sher explained how this dream became a reality. “From the moment our va’ad poel [steering committee] for machaneh was elected this year, we were thinking about how we could make machaneh a reality. After consultation with medical professionals and those who have had summer camps overseas, many permutations of machaneh were drawn up.

“Some were on the more optimistic side, and some with more conservative thinking,” he says. “Throughout this time, the South African Zionist Federation [SAZF] was holding meetings for the youth movements, the Community Security Organisation [CSO], and other community figures to discuss how machaneh could happen, often attended by [local virology expert] Professor Barry Schoub. A common point was the vaccination of adolescents. It left room for optimism for December. Without these meetings and the support of these communal bodies, December machaneh couldn’t happen.”

With the announcement on Friday, 15 October, that vaccination would open to 12 to 17 year olds in South Africa, “the va’ad poel and our staff were in a panic, but excited. A golden opportunity had fallen into our laps that would allow us to bring machaneh to fruition. It’s almost impossible to describe the happiness we felt.”

Asked about the impact of not having machaneh or in-person events, Sher says, “In a word, devastating. Habonim Dror thrives on in-person interaction. For generations, we have been a space for Jewish youth to come together to have fun, discuss world issues, create change, and become strong leaders. Online activities don’t bring the ‘Habo magic’ that we need to feel.”

Habonim Manhig Wayne Sussman says, “The impact of not having a machaneh last year or any major in-person events has been absolutely devastating. Not just to Habonim, but to all South African youth movements. Camps and in-person events are a core part of the South African Jewish youth experience. They’re one of the things which make our community so great, and it’s absolutely critical that our kids return to camp sooner rather than later.”

Since the announcement, he says, “I have seen a youth movement come alive. I’m seeing renewed vigour, renewed energy, which has been lacking amongst our very brave and committed youth movement leadership for the past 20 months.”

Sher says “a full COVID-19 protocol policy document has been prepared for our machaneh with the help of medical professionals and those who have successfully run summer camps overseas. This will be available as soon as our sign-ups are open so that all parents and madrichim know exactly how we are keeping safe before they sign up.”

Says Sussman, “Of course, we’ll also limit numbers, and we are going to launch this properly and open sign-ups only once we’ve properly engaged with community leadership and the CSO.”

“Vaccination will be required by anyone on the campsite, a negative COVID-19 PCR test will have to be presented on arrival, and general COVID-19 protocols will have to be adhered to,” Sher says. “Anyone who tests positive will have to isolate immediately and will unfortunately be sent home. Those who have been in close contact with them will have to isolate and await a PCR test.”

What will stay the same and what will be different? “Fortunately, with a vaccine blanket over our campsite, a lot of what we love about machaneh can continue,” says Sher. “There will still be ruach [spirit], Havdalah, the beach, and everything we love about machaneh, just with some slight adjustments.” The youngest age groups, Garinim and Shtilim, won’t be able to attend.

“Should there be a fourth wave during December, Habonim Dror is committed to ensuring that we are able to adapt or at worst cancel,” he says. “The safety and health of our campers will always come first. We will make sure that we make the correct decisions in the interest of our community.”

Says Sussman, “Of course, there’s a chance that we might have to pull the plug on this. But as long as that door is open, as long as kids know that if they get vaccinated, if they’re responsible, and if they really want to attend machaneh, we’re going to do what we can to give them best summer.”

Since making the announcement, “We have had an overwhelming response from parents, kids, bogrim, and ex-chaverim all over the world,” says Sher. “People have been reaching out offering support and services. I couldn’t be more thankful to our Habonim and Jewish communities. We’re going home.”

SAZF executive member Anthony Rosmarin says, “December machanot have, for decades, played a vital role in strengthening Jewish identity and building young leaders. Recognising the impact that COVID-19 has had on the ability to host these pivotal annual events, the SAZF created a platform that brought together youth movements, medical and security advisors, and stakeholders to discuss the feasibility of December machanot.

“Given the fluid nature of the ongoing pandemic, this assessment is continually being updated and we recognise that each youth movement must come to its own determination as to whether or not to move forward with camp preparations for 2021. We are committed to providing support and advice on how best to approach this complex decision in a safe and responsible manner.”

The mazkir of Netzer South Africa, Jason Bourne, says “Netzer has decided that it won’t be running a full, in-person summer machaneh this year. Instead, we will be running day camps in Cape Town, Durban, and Joburg. Though vaccinations are being administered and cases are declining, we feel that there are still too many unanswered questions to have a sleep-away camp. As things unfold and more people are vaccinated, we may open a small weekend sleepover element to our day camp experience for older, vaccinated participants only.”

A community leader, speaking anonymously, says “Bnei Akiva would love to have a camp at the end of the year but it’s looking at all the medical and logistical issues. No decision has been made and over the next few days, it will explore it all carefully and come to a conclusion.”

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Hatzolah’s invasion tour brings freedom back

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I’ve never thought of us as the invading type, we’re more “people of the book”, but for five amazing days, even if in our own minds, we invaded the roads of the Overberg region on the 2021 Hatzolah Cape Invasion Tour.

As a first-time invader, and yes, I have to say it, in a COVID-19 year, I wasn’t sure what to expect and how I would feel being in a hotel for five days with a group of guys, many of whom I didn’t know, and riding in a mask-less peloton. This was in addition to the real fear of whether my “pins” (legs) would hold up for the 500km of riding and more than 5 000m of climbing that was necessary to claim a full invasion.

What I hadn’t taken into account was the “Hatzolah factor”. Here is an organisation whose mission it is to care, keep our community safe, save our lives when called upon to do so, and in doing so, to help create “a future that looks brighter together”.

In some respects, the riding was secondary. The operation to keep the invaders safe in all aspects was the real show, and the stakes were high for Hatzolah, which has been our knight in shining PPE (protective) suits throughout the pandemic. And what a show it put on! Led by rosh riding, Mark Kruger; rosh logistics and anything else you could think of, Sharon Newfield; and rosh medical, Yudi Singer, the Hatzolah team of Bernard Segal, Justin Gillman, Albert Ndlovu, and Sisqo Buthelezi were simply exceptional. I can tell you from personal experience that to have Segal following you in a red ambulance and then pull up next to you and offer you a “red ambulance” (an ice-cold Coke) when you’ve been dropped by the group is really quite remarkable.

As were the unbelievable marshals who worked the traffic and kept us moving safely in every direction, and our bike mechanic, Sylvester, who kept our Dogmas, Canyons, and Treks rolling smoothly on the open road. An essential function for a group full of Jewish bike mechanics.

The riding was exceptional. From the spectacular descent into Gordon’s Bay to the golden fields of the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, from Pringle Bay to Villiersdorp and Hermanus, we were treated to the best of our beautiful country.

One of the biggest challenges for the invaders, on top of riding and climbing, was to return from the invasion weighing less and not more than when we started. Avron of Avron’s in Cape Town made sure that was almost impossible. The food was top class. How do I know? No one complained.

Not everything was smooth sailing. On day three, one of the more accomplished riders in the group, who was beginning to glow like a lava lamp, discovered that he had been shmeering himself with sanitiser and not sun block, but even that was quickly fixed.

And just when it couldn’t get any better, it did. Each evening, we were treated to a virtuoso performance of Pavarotti, Bocelli, and beautiful chazonis from one of – actually probably the only – multitalented rider on the tour, Ezra Sher.

I almost forgot. How do you know you’ve got Chabadniks on the ride? You have a shul set up complete with a Torah and guys lining up to put tefillin on in the morning. Love it!

From the COVID-19 tests that were required from all riders prior to arriving at Arabella, to the dedicated dining area, to the support teams and riders who made up the invading party of 2021 in a COVID-19 year, it almost felt normal. Like we were back.

This year’s tour was as much about the riding as it was about re-claiming just a little bit of our freedom that has been taken away from all of us over the past 18 or so months. It was about being careful, which allowed us to be carefree. It was about being part of a remarkable community of riders supporting the remarkable organisation that Hatzolah is. There aren’t many quotable quotes when one thinks of Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when it comes to the Hatzolah Cape Invasion for 2022, one springs to mind. “I’ll be back!” May the wind be at our backs.

  • Herschel Jawitz is on the board of the SA Jewish Report.

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