Mazisi Kunene

Acclaimed poet and ANC activist
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The Independent Online

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