Mazisi Kunene

Acclaimed poet and ANC activist

Mazisi Raymond Kunene, poet: born Durban, South Africa 12 May 1930; married (three sons, one daughter); died Durban 12 August 2006.

Mazisi Kunene was one of the greatest figures of South African and African literatures. He was a poet and critic who was committed to the development and understanding of African literary forms, especially in indigenous languages, and he combined a keen critical intellect with an expansive poetic vision. He also made significant contributions to the anti-apartheid struggle from his position within the ANC in exile.

Kunene was born in Durban, South Africa in 1930. His father was from the royal Swazi clan and his mother from the large Zulu Ngcobo grouping. He was educated at the University of Natal, where he completed a seminal master's study on Zulu literature. He left South Africa in 1959 when he won a scholarship to study at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University.

At this stage he was already politically active in the ANC, and despite his own reluctance to take up the scholarship, he was encouraged by the organisation to use the opportunity to help get the boycott movement going. He became the official United Nations representative of the ANC, and later its director of finance. He travelled to Europe and the United States where he gave a number of lectures. He worked at Stanford, and was later appointed Professor of African Literature and Language at the University of California, Los Angeles.

On 1 April 1966, he was banned by the South African government under the Amendment to the Suppression of Communism Act, along with a number of other black South African writers. He spent 30 years in exile, returning to his home country in 1993 to take up a Professorship in Zulu Language and Literature at the University of Natal.

In 1993 Mazisi Kunene was declared Poet Laureate of Africa by Unesco. He published a number of poems either in Zulu or in translation, as well as several articles on Zulu philosophy and cosmology. His books include Zulu Poems (1970), Emperor Shaka the Great (1979), Anthem of the Decades (1981), The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain (1982), Isibusiso sikamhawu (1994), Impepho (1994), Indida yamancasakazi (1995), Amalokotho kaNomkhubulwane (1996) and Umzwilili wamaAfrika (1996).

Kunene's forming contexts as writer and academic were very much those of Africanist debates within the ANC, the politics of exile, and the agendas of African studies intellectuals in the United States, including those influenced by Negritude. He is held in high esteem by many scholars in the US and elsewhere. Albert S. Gérard talks of Kunene's "considerable talent and striking originality in [his] use of traditional Zulu concepts and imagery", and Kodiatu Sesay claims that Kunene is "one of the best black writers in [South Africa] today". Ursula A. Barnett says of Emperor Shaka the Great, "it may possibly stand beside some of the world's great epics".

Kunene is best known for his extended epic poems which reflect upon significant Zulu historical achievements or explore complex mythological understandings. Partly because his work was banned in South Africa, and perhaps also because his epic verse seemed somewhat removed from the exigencies of political struggle in South African townships of the late 1970s and 1980s, Kunene has not always received the recognition he deserved within his own country.

His work is presently receiving renewed attention, and a project is under way - under the auspices of the newly launched Mazisi Kunene Foundation - both to bring more of his work to publication, especially that in the Zulu language, and to develop scholarship in indigenous languages, a project very close to Kunene's heart.

Kunene's own political position was complex and somewhat contradictory. He was an active and senior member of the ANC, but also a supporter of the Zulu monarchy, which was entangled in the apartheid homeland system. His poem Emperor Shaka the Great finds in Shaka a great pan-African and human leader, and someone who anchors claims about the Zulu kingship in South Africa: it is dedicated to "Prince Gatsha Buthelezi", leader of the conservative Zulu organisation Inkatha; but Kunene was proud that it was read by ANC guerillas in their training camps.

Mazisi Kunene was a man and a poet of immense humanity. In perhaps what is closest to his credo, he said in a poem:

we are not the driftwood of distant oceans

our kinsmen are a thousand centuries old

only a few nations begat civilization

not of gold, not of things but of people.

Duncan Brown

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Rita Ora will replace Kylie Minogue as a judge on The Voice 2015
Life and Style
Life and Style
Alan Turing, who was convicted of gross indecency in 1952, was granted a royal pardon last year
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tennis player Andy Murray's mum Judy has been paired with Anton du Beke for Strictly Come Dancing. 'I'm absolutely delighted,' she said.
tvJudy Murray 'struggling' to let Anton Du Beke take control on Strictly
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project manager - Web E-commerce

£65000 Per Annum Benefits + bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: If you are...

PSHE Teacher - Cheshire West

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Teachers with a passion for PSHE neede...

PSHE Teacher - Chester

Negotiable: Randstad Education Chester: Teachers with a passion for PSHE neede...

Humanities Teacher

£85 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chester: Job Opportunity for Secondary ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits