88. Impi

Weddings are a source of great joy to the self-conscious teenagers of the world, because, in most families, weddings are the only place where they can show off their father’s matchless skills on the dance floor.

You can always spot teenagers whose fathers have decided to break out their moves. They’re generally over in the corner, cowering behind pot plants, chests bursting with pride, as their male progenitors demonstrate that Elvis was a mere babe in the woods when it came to hip swivelling prowess.

He ain't, as you can see, nothing but a hound dog.

He ain’t, as you can see, nothing but a hound dog.

Not here. Here, teenagers are so proud that they generally need to leave the building. And they all leave the building at precisely the same time. They leave when a song called “Impi” comes on. And, at white people weddings at least, it always comes on.

Should you ever find yourself at a white people wedding in South Africa, and suddenly hear a driving beat come over the speakers and a chorus of deep, melodic African voices bellow out “Impi”, stop and watch. You’re going to see something special.

Quiet please, everyone. Norman is going to bust a move.

Quiet please, everyone. Norman is going to bust a move.

You’re going to see a bunch of middle aged men look around with a look of beatific joy on their faces and clear themselves a space on the dance floor. Those who are sitting down will leap up and come and join the fray. And then they are going to do something a little odd. They will begin to shuffle backwards and forwards in time to the music, as if trying to clear the floor of imaginary marbles. And then, when those deep, melodic African voices bellow out “Impi” again, they will raise one of their feet as high as they possibly can into the air, theoretically to somewhere above their heads, but usually to about knee height, and bring it down with a resounding thump.

No, they have not all simultaneously been attacked by spiders. They are trying to do this.

They do not, however, fall on the floor like that. That would be undignified. That is a proper Zulu war dance. It’s not ballet. Those sticks that they are carrying are not there for display. They are used for stick fighting, a traditional Zulu sport in which the competitors beat the crap out of each other with (unsurprisingly) sticks. And many of the gestures you see are meant to represent stabbing motions.

You will notice that one of the tribal dancers in that video happens to be white. That’s Johnny Clegg, and for many white South Africans of my generation, he occupies a special place in our hearts. Because he is one of the people who freed us. And “Impi” is one of his songs.

Excuse the hair. It was the eighties.

Excuse the hair. It was the eighties.

I grew up in a very strange place at a very strange time. In the eighties, apartheid was at its zenith. Men in body armour patrolled outside shopping malls, brandishing R4 machine guns. There were moulded plastic posters up on the walls of public buildings showing us what limpet mines and grenades looked like. At school, we were handed the world’s least inspiring magazine, called “Paratus”, to read during quiet periods. It was a magazine about how cool our army was.

Our army was not cool. A generation of young, white boys was conscripted, taken away from families and friends and lovers, and sent off to fight communism in Angola. I missed it by a year. But I knew a lot of young men who went. And a lot of them who came back broken.

And into this mess strode Johnny Clegg. He did something unheard of. He hung out with black people. Other young white people hung out with black people, too, but we never heard about them. We heard about Johnny Clegg, though, because he also managed to get famous.

He broke the world spider stomping record. Twice.

He broke the world spider stomping record. Twice.

He got famous because he hung out with a very specific group of black people. He hung out with migrant Zulu labourers who had come up to Johannesburg to work on the mines. And he hung out with them because of their music. He learnt to play the guitar in the Zulu picking style, and he took part in traditional dance competitions. And then he started a band called Juluka. That’s when we got to know about him.

And that, like I said, is when he helped free us. My childhood was unusual, in that I went to mixed school. But it was a school of the privileged. The young white people who mixed perfectly cheerfully on the school grounds were the few whose parents could afford it. Most young people, at least in the cities, had never really spent any real time hanging around with black kids. We didn’t all walk around being active racists, we were simply separate. That’s what apartheid means.

It also means always having somewhere to sit. Apparently.

It also means always having somewhere to sit. Apparently.

But then we saw Johnny Clegg. He was hanging around with blacks! And he didn’t get cooties! He sang with them. And he danced with them. And the music was cool. Lots of us still listen to it. He was one of the people who first let us entertain the idea that it might be quite fun to hang around with black people, and that if we did so, we too might be cool, and probably wouldn’t burst into flames.

He wrote some songs that still resonate with me. I remember cowering in a dormitory listening to a song called “Asimbonanga”, which we were all convinced was banned, and would land us in jail if we were caught with it. It was about Mandela and his comrades imprisoned on Robben Island.

He wrote a song called “The crossing”, which still gives me goosebumps, and carries deep meaning for Mrs 23thorns.

And he wrote “Impi”. A gift to self-conscious teenagers throughout the land. And a gift to middle-aged white men in uncomfortable suits who can feel, just for one song, like they are warriors. And even more than that, a gift to any of the black people we are now perfectly comfortable inviting to our weddings.

No black person has danced to “Impi” since 1987. It’s not that they don’t like it. It’s just that if they had to dance, they would miss the show.

53 thoughts on “88. Impi

  1. henk says:

    For me, this one rates amongst your finest work – thanks for the read and memories. In addition to Johnny Clegg, my boys got introduced to Ladysmith Black Mambaza and the Late Miriam Makeba.

  2. Johnny Clegg was such a favorite and hero of mine. I had his tapes and now some CDs and still play. Seeing the video was so good. So, thank you so much….

  3. Max Shields says:

    What a great and inspiring entry. I grew up in Canada in the ’80s and ’90s and have a vague recollection of Johnny Clegg as part of what one of my teachers was trying to teach us about South Africa and apartheid. It is wonderful to get some first hand context to frame the question. Thank you!

  4. Jocelyn Hers says:

    O the wonders of modern life. You mention Johnny Clegg, I press a button and lo and behold he is singing for me. However, for reasons too complicated to go into here, I have a Pavlov reaction to Johnny Clegg, he takes me straight back to the first stocktake I ever did at EB.
    Oh yes, did you ever see that notice that said “No Coloureds no Blacks no dogs of any sort” (!)

  5. Art Brûlant says:

    Thank you very much! Johnny Clegg……..a favourite!

  6. ssoldjasper says:

    You’ve hit a nerve! Small that it is, writer’s goals should put ‘nerve hitting’ at the top of the list.

    My Mom & Dad were not on the same wavelength. Never saw Dad dance a step. He was a hunter. That is he liked guns: went hunting the day before every Thanksgiving..

    Mom would dance at the drop of a hat. Too bad there were so many bald headed dance partners. Mostly women. US kids were priority.

    There is slim memories from my side. But what images I do have are suddenly brought to the front!


  7. This is very touching. And good to hear about that period from someone who was actually there. I went on a lot of anti apartheid marches back then in London. It was a time when you really believed it could make a difference.

    He sounds like a SA Bob Dylan.

  8. I love that song. Havent heard it at a wedding though:)

  9. Thanks for a great post. I learned so much and loved the clips. Now to find more😊

  10. Linne says:

    Thank you! For the humour, as always, but for the music most of all. And to you and to Narfie7, thanks for the mention of Yothu Yindi; I just played “Treaty” and it’s great! One version had some of the singers from Midnight Oil on stage, too. That was my first Aussie CD, although I’ve loved Aussie folk songs all my life (just haven’t been exposed to very many of them). And Johnny Clegg! There are places on one song where he sounds like Dylan; so now I have added two new groups to my favourites and renewed my long-time love of Midnight Oil. “Beds Are Burning” . . . what good memories; the music, not the reason for it. We have had racism here all along, too (Canada). I remember reading about the First Nations peoples from Grade One on; I was so interested to learn about other cultures . . . we had First Nations kids at school and I very much wanted to talk to them. But I was painfully shy and somehow, without anyone saying, I knew that one didn’t talk to ‘them’. So many missed opportunities . . . so my ‘knowledge’ at first was quite off the mark, coming as it did from Europaean writers. Later I read some of the aboriginal authors and worked with aboriginal social workers and elders. Then I began to really learn about the peoples, their cultures and what was done to them. Some of it is still coming out in the news, even a few weeks ago there were two horrific items revealed. So it’s good to see strong images of Euros who learn, not just try to impose their own thing on others. Gives me hope. Thanks again. ~ Linne

  11. amithi says:

    Thanks for this post. I came across Johnny Clegg when “Third World Child” was released in Germany and it is still one of my favourite CDs. I found that he is apparently really popular in France – gets a lot of airplay on France Bleu, while I know nobody around here who has heard of him.

  12. kokkieh says:

    You know, I’ve never, not once, heard “Impi” being played at a wedding. But then I keep getting invitations to weddings of people who think Kurt Darren is a good musician…

    You should have included a video of the Wimpy advert of a few years ago.

    • 23thorns says:

      At Kurt Darren weddings, you don’t need “Impi”, because you have a far more terrifying war dance; the sokkie.
      I was at varsity in Stellenbosch, and saw enough to convince me that the sokkie should never be performed without safety gear. The guys on the outside of the dance floor are moving at about 60km/h, with their elbows sticking out while they hurl occasionally fairly substantial women around.

      • kokkieh says:

        See, I never went to sokkies as student, so when a wedding turns into one it’s downright terrifying. The exception was my sister’s wedding. She taught at a dance school and almost all the non-relative guests were also involved with the school. The rest of us stayed off the dance floor in the certain knowledge we’d only embarrass ourselves. No Impi, though they did do Gangham Style (and actually managed to make it look good).

  13. Thanks so much for reintroducing Johnny Clegg and Juluka! I’ve missed them ever since my cassette tape disappeared into the ether!

  14. Oh heavens. The Crossing gets me every time. O Siyeza…I’m finished!

  15. narf77 says:

    Not sure uncle Herman would like you to use his image without his permission Mr 23Thorns. I can see why teenagers are enraptured when their paternal relatives attempt to emulate that wonderful ceremonial dance. One can only begin to imagine the incredible prowess on display, especially after a fifth of scotch or two…

    • 23thorns says:

      I would imagine something similar happens when Yothu Yindi comes on

      • narf77 says:

        You would imagine correctly Mr 23Thorns… “Treaty now…Treaty yeah…Treaty now!” I can feel the desire to get up and shake a leg rising…might be best to settle down even though there aren’t any teenagers in the house at the moment…

  16. Trapper Gale says:

    Very interesting… and hey, I’ve not only heard of Johnny Clegg, but I’ve heard at least some of his music.

  17. sisteranan says:

    Thank you, i enjoyed this.
    We grew up with prejudice here, as well, but not towards black people. Those simply didn’t exist, here at least. There were, however, two doors we all had to pass through: Brits and Other. So even though we were white, as British Isles Heinz 57, we were not ‘white enough’. You may laugh, but it meant jobs and homes and acceptable marriages were privileges denied at the time.

  18. dste says:

    What a great post! I loved listening to these wonderful songs that I’d never heard of before!

  19. johnjroberts says:

    Sorry, don’t know much about South African (or any African) music. But in the mid 80s, I had occasion to overnight at the Johannesburg airport several times on my way from SE Asia to Brazil and back. I picked up a Ladysmith Black Mombazo CD at the gift shop and still have it on my playlist. Thanks for the introduction to another genre.

    • 23thorns says:

      Ladysmith Black Mambazo are in a class of their own. They took a rather obscure form of traditional music and turned it into something breathtaking.

  20. Lyn says:

    Thinking back to when I was growing up as a child in the 50’s and 60’s (born in 1948), I could never understand why white South Africans were such horrible people. My parents, who were older than most parents (42 and 60 when I was born) loathed apartheid. My Dad, an almost fanatical lover of cricket, fumed that there were no black South Africans in the SA cricket team. I think that’s why I grew up hating the white South African accent. To me, it equated to hatred, superiority and intolerance. I was well into my 30’s before I accepted that there were some nice – even honourable – white South Africans and my (literal) stomach churning reaction at hearing their accent quelled. If there had been such a thing as “accent racism” back then, I probably would have been president elect.

  21. Fascinating! Even here in Canada, I’d heard of Johnny Clegg & Juluka. Great to have some context.

  22. I am taken back by the first youtube video. Absolutely amazing.
    Great post!!

  23. billgncs says:

    In the 1980’s we played a team from South Africa that was all white with a single black winger. He won the match in the last minute with a long run. I remember how they celebrated his excellence there, though he was less than equal at home.

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