The CUNY School of Law bestowed an honorary Doctor of Laws degree on Jonathan “Johnny” Clegg, the renowned South African musician, human rights activist and anthropologist, in a ceremony at University offices April 5.
Best known for songs such as “Asimbonanga” (“We have not seen him”) — a tribute to Nelson
Mandela, Steve Biko, Victoria Mxenge, Neill Aggett and other anti-apartheid heroes and martyrs — Clegg and his bands Juluka (the first mixed-race band in South Africa, formed with the Zulu musician Sipho Mchunu,) and Savuka defied apartheid laws by performing for racially mixed audiences, resulting in numerous arrests for Clegg and his band members. Earlier in his career, Clegg studied Zulu dance — which he would later incorporate exuberantly in his live performances — and lectured on anthropology at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
CUNY Board Vice Chairperson Philip Alfonso Berry praised Clegg and his melding of music, activism and philanthropy as the essence of ubuntu, the African humanist concept of the individual’s interconnectedness to the community and the world.
Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Provost Alexandra Logue said that in combining Western and Zulu rhythms and stimulating audiences to think more deeply about racial identity and justice, Clegg embodied values similar to bedrock CUNY principles, such as the celebration of diversity and the equality of opportunity.
Michelle Anderson, dean of the CUNY School of Law, poignantly highlighted the school’s longstanding relationship to South Africa. She noted that the investiture ceremony for Clegg fell 15 years and a week after the school’s second dean, Haywood Burns, and faculty member Shanara Gilbert died in a car accident while working for post-apartheid judicial reform in South Africa.
Clegg said it was appropriate that his honorary degree was a doctor of laws, for he has spent a lifetime questioning “why the fence exists,” alluding to the plethora of laws and institutions (a “legal Lego set”) that legislated the separation of races and social spaces in South Africa. He said he found it fitting that his journey to “find a way around the fence” had brought him to CUNY.