Mazisi Kunene
(South Africa, 1930–2006)   
Mazisi Kunene

The heritage of Kunene, this great spokesman,
is without a doubt indispensable to the
restructuring of the foundation of the
reconstruction of the identity of the African

Aimé Césaire

The literary achievements of Mazisi Raymond Fakazi Mngoni Kunene (1930-2006) were among the most remarkable to have come from Africa in the twentieth century. Although his death at the age of 75 seems to have signified the closing of an extraordinary literary tradition in South Africa, that of African Literature in the African Languages, his practice of it in five decades, throughout the political tribulations of the country in the second half of the century, brought about its greatest efflorescence.

This tradition has given the country major poets across the twentieth century: Samuel Edward Krune Mqhayi (1875-1945), Nontsizi Mgqwetho (dates unknown), Benedict Wallet Mbabatha Vilakazi (1906-1947), K. E. Ntsane (dates unknown), David Livingstone Phakamile Yali Manisi (1926-1999) and Kunene himself.  The first two poets and the fifth in this lineage wrote in Xhosa; the third and the sixth in Zulu; and the fourth in Sotho.

Mazisi Kunene’s contribution has been in the form of two epics: Emperor Shaka The Great, 1979, and Anthem of the Decades, 1981, two anthologies: Zulu Poems, 1970, and The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, 1982, and a seminal MA thesis: An Analytical Survey of Zulu Poetry: Both Traditional and Modern, 1958.

Although these publications have established his reputation in African literary history, they do not compare with what remains unpublished: over thirty epics and voluminous anthologies, which assuredly will keep South African literary scholars preoccupied throughout the twenty first century with his legacy.

An Analytical Survey of Zulu Poetry is an archeological survey of the trajectory of Zulu poetry from the pre-Shakan era to modern times. The work is not only engaged with the genesis and metamorphosis of Zulu poetic form through the ages, but also, and even more impressively, it inaugurated a theme that was to be constant throughout his poetic creativity – the structure of the African cosmological world.

Though the two epics are distinct great songs about African philosophy of life as determined by and inherently integrated to African cosmology, Mazisi Kunene seems to have felt compelled to write expository and evocative essays on the specificities of this cosmology because of the rupturing effect European modernity has had on African traditions, as the subtitle of the thesis clearly implies.

This ruptured world gave the great poet several tropes that were the constancy of his poetic imagination: a salutation to Nature’s holistic complexity; because of the permanent proximity of life and death in the African world, in fact of their cyclical nature, Mazisi Kunene invokes the departed spirits or Ancestors not to forsake the world of the living; and the imaginary unity of the African world – imaginary and no less real because of it.

In writing this study, he had been inspired and challenged by Benedict Vilakazi’s doctoral dissertation of 1946: The Oral and Written Literature in Nguni. Despite the ambivalence Kunene had towards Vilakazi in his initiatory days, as evident in the astringent words the younger poet had for the first major Zulu poet, the senior poet imparted to him moral intellectual conviction that he dispensed with in all his years of poetic creativity: the linguistic and cultural superiority of African languages over the European languages.

This is the reason that Mazisi Kunene never abandoned Zulu in his poetic practice, when most African writers of his generation aligned themselves with European languages, this was true of African writers from Ezekiel Mphahlele to Wole Soyinka, from Chinua Achebe to Neruddin Farah. Mazisi Kunene affirmed his commitment to Zulu specifically and the African languages in general through paying to Vilakazi.

The elder poet was an accompanying guide on the spiritual and poetic journey of the younger poet. Vilakazi not only enabled Kunene to locate himself in African intellectual traditions, he also imparted to him a culture of resistance. In “A Meeting with Vilakazi, The Great Zulu Poet”, he recognized the achievements of his master:

And the old dancing arena was filled with festival crowds.
Your great songs echoed to the accompaniment of the festival horn
It was the beginning of our ancient new year
Before the foreigners came, before they planted their own emblems.
I came to the arena and you held my hand.
Together we danced the boast-dance of our forefathers
We sang the great anthems of the uLundi mountains.

Among the many things that Benedict Vilakazi imparted to Mazisi Kunene was the necessity of restoring the eminence of African languages in the African imagination, in replacement of European languages which are “foreign emblems”. In writing about dancing to the ‘forefathers’, he was voicing his responsibility in acknowledging the poetic heritage of which he was the latest representative. One of his beloved ‘Ancestors’ was Mshongweni, the great nineteenth century Royal Court poet of Shaka, of whom he had this to say in ‘Tribute to Mshongweni’:

Your dreams shall invade our earth
Creating an endless line of horizons
We too shall follow the song of the night-bird to the hill
The whole earth shall see the falling star
The time that bears the glorious seasons
Shall stampede to the valley of fruitfulness
The processions of the first-fruit shall come from all nations
The mountain springs shall burst open their freshness.

When Mazisi Kunene wrote that “we too shall follow the song of the night-bird to the hill” and that he will sing “the great anthems of the uLundi mountains”, he was promising the African Nation of South Africa, then in a mortal struggle with white supremacy and apartheid, that he would give it immortal works that define its African Identity in the context of a complex Africa, as
Aimé Césaire mentions in the epigraph.

Indeed, Mazisi Kunene has over the last five decades given South Africa such extraordinary work that major writers such as JM Coetzee, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Andr
é Brink and Ngugi wa Thiong’o have designated him as “a great poet”.

In recognition of his achievement, the South African government, on March 5, 2005, approximately fifteen months before his transition to the Ancestors, gave him the first South African National Poet Laureate Prize.

© Ntongela Masilela, Pitzer College, Claremont, California


Zulu Poems, Holmes & Meier, 1970
Anthem of the Decades: A Zulu Epic, Heinemann,1981
The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, 1982
Isibusiso Sikamhawu, Via Afrika, 1994
Indida Yamancasakazi, 1995
Amalokotho Kanomkhubulwane, 1996
Umzwilili wama-Afrika, Kagiso, 1996
Igudu lika Somcabeko, Van Schaik, 1997
Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic, Heinemann, 1979
Echoes from the Mountain. New and Selected Poems by Mazisi Kunene, Malthouse Press, 2007


The Mazisi Kunene Foundation Trust:

A Tribute to Mazisi Kunene and the Mazisi Kunene Project


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