Generational wars and the death of Johnny Clegg

Johnny Clegg died recently. For those who don’t know of him, he was a South African musician known as ‘The White Zulu’ and one of the few white artists to take on the apartheid government in the 80s. He wrote music in collaboration with Zulu musicians about Zulu culture, integrating the language and dance and sounds into his music. He wrote ‘Scatterlings of Africa’, which still makes me slightly emotional as an often homesick South African. For a younger generation, he will be seen as culturally misappropriating. For me, a child in the segregated 80’s in South Africa’s Zululand, his album African Litany was an epiphany. It taught me that I could feel a part of something bigger; be a white child, whose ancestors were the very people that killed Zulu warriors, but feel emotionally and deeply connected to ‘Impi’, singing the zulu words ‘Impi! wo ‘nans’ impi iyeza Obani bengathinta amabhubesi?’ at the top of my voice. Simply, they mean ‘the war is coming, but who can touch the Lions?’ It’s a song about Zulu triumph in battle against the British, but also the suffering of war.

Clegg’s death made me think a lot about my childhood and my father, a lovely man of 84 who thankfully still plays a central role in my life. I was born when he was 40 in a time of disruption for South Africa, during apartheid but — thankfully — at the beginning of the end of it. By the time I was a teenager, I was at a multiracial left-wing(ish) independent school and, understandably, my political outlook was anti-establishment. My father was in his mid 50s by then, a man in a suit who didn’t seem like an obvious ally. I knew it all and he couldn’t possibly know anything. My mother, on the other hand, was 15 years younger than my father and grew up during the 60s. She did many magnificent things that were visible to me; she was part of a group of women who contributed to the constitution for women when South Africa freed itself of apartheid, as well as starting her own business to fund my education. She had books like ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves’ and went on Buddhist spiritual retreats. My father belonged to the local Rotary club.

Truth was, I knew very little and my father knew an awful lot. He was born in 1935 in England, just before the war broke out. At a young age, his father went away to fight for some time and his brother was killed. During those years, he found solace in stories about Africa and the adventure of living near an airbase. One day, a nazi plane was shot down and one of the British pilots took the armband off the dead German pilot. He gave it to my father as a trophy, probably as compensation for his missing father and dead brother (you can only imagine what I thought when I found a nazi armband in my father’s belongings one day — young people rarely give their family the benefit of the doubt). When my grandfather returned from war, it was obvious Britain was in such a state that they needed to find a new life away from the dire sadness and poverty. They emigrated to South Africa.

His new life was one of strangeness, excitement and some unexpected bigotry. You see, my father was a ‘Pom’. He didn’t speak Afrikaans and had kept his childhood admiration for Zulu warriors, something looked upon with disdain by the local white community in the 50s. He was fascinated by Zulu customs, words, everything. He was also a wildlife photographer for a time, spending time with Zulu guides to help him track animals. So he learned to speak Zulu, not only to converse with the men who worked with him but to access the romantic world of his African dreams. He never learned Afrikaans. To this day, he struggles to pronounce even the simplest phrases in that language but remembers almost every word of Zulu. In the 80s and 90s, when his Zulu staff were being threatened with violence by unions, he helped to enable the first in-house union so his staff could be in control of their own decisions about industrial action. I say ‘enable’ instead of ‘create’ because he wasn’t a big white saviour, just a man who likes people and who wanted to use his power to empower. However, instead of focussing on his actions, we would have blazing arguments about his use of what I considered to be offensive language or generalisations. Don’t get me wrong, we still have massive debates, but now, as a 44 year old, I know that he is an outstanding person of deep compassion, and one of my favourite human beings.

This merry-go-round between generations is eternal and has interestingly become a big part of my life, which is why — beyond Johnny Clegg — I often reflect on my relationships with the generations above and below me. As an experience strategist, I am regularly asked by organisations how they can reach younger generations and am often in the position of managing and mentoring younger people. I am also starting to feel some of what my father used to feel when I had a go at him. I remember being in a workshop once with some young planners and they had decided to create an offline catalog for ‘older people who don’t know how to use the Internet’. When I asked what they meant by ‘older people’ they said ‘people in their 40s.’ I laughed. There they were, wearing nineties-style clothes that we designed, talking about social media platforms that we created and using strategic approaches that we taught them, but sure, we were doddering old fools.

There is an amazing scene in the revived 2019 ‘Tales of the City’ Netflix release that shows exactly this clash of X vs Y generational culture. A younger character, Ben, calls out a group of older gay men for using language and making fun in a way that would be considered inappropriate to Gen Ys. An intense monologue ensues. An older character reminds Ben that the freedoms he is enjoying as a younger gay man are down to his generation’s sacrifices and pain, saying “What makes you think you can understand this? Because you watched Angels in America?” Older generations, battle worn and feeling the right to use whatever language they want as a trophy, younger generations trying to correct behaviours and languages they find to be harmful to progress. The generational merry-go-round.

To both my generation and younger ones; it’s time to build a bridge and get over it. My friend, Chris, says this to me every time I get annoyed by something small and it helps. The truth is, we are all snowflakes, the lot of us. At the end of it all, we have a social challenge to address; younger generations need to make a better world but older generations have the power to enable those changes faster. If you don’t use your influence and knowledge to help younger people do things their way while learning from your mistakes, the future will be a rehash of the mistakes of old (something we are seeing politically all over the world right now). If you are younger and seriously think you have nothing to learn from the generations above you, you are foolish. The future will certainly be no better than now and could potentially be far worse. Collaboration and enablement is really the only way forward. The job of leaders is now to be educators. You have to make it easy for your teams to learn what you do and improve upon it. I see organisations struggling to learn skills fast enough, younger people confused and frustrated with how to progress while also trying to change what doesn’t work, and silos and lack of collaboration crushing organisations. That is one of the reasons why I wrote The Meritocracy Manifesto, a plea to share information and enable growth, fairness and collaboration. But it is just one method, there are many more. Pick one, and build that bridge. End the war.

And what about Johnny Clegg? He gave me a truer connection to my country, to the language my father loved and inspired me to pick every fight worth fighting. Ngiyabonga (thank you).

Experience Strategist, using insights about human behavior to fix broken experiences for customers and organisations.

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