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Literary Icon and Anti-Apartheid Campaigner


By Shola Adenekan


Mazisi Kunene who has died aged 76, was one of Africa’s greatest poets and literary icons.


He was a talented writer whose inspiration was the history of Zulu people, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the oral tradition of African literature.


He was as cosmopolitan as he was nationalistic, espousing an African literary and cultural ethos as the likes of Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiongo and Wole Soyinka.


Kunene’s works were originally written in Zulu before they were translated into other languages. He believed that true African literature must be written in African languages.  The problem about writing in a foreign language, he said, is that one is not in control of it and its psychology.


He regarded the affirmation of an African aesthetic, especially with regard to poetics, as an important dimension of the freedom of African people, on the continent and in the diasporas, from the degrading stereotypes and literary pretensions of the West.


Kunene stressed that his literary goal is the re-telling of African history in a way he believed would make it relevant and authentic to the non-African.


But he was not only a celebrated writer, he was also a political activist and a staunch supporter and a leader within the military wing of the ANC in the days of apartheid.


Mazisi Raymond Fakazi Mngoni Kunene was born in Durban, South Africa, on May 12, 1930. He spent his childhood in Amahlongwa on the Kwa-Zulu Natal South Coast, where he had his early education. His father hailed from the Royal Swazi clan and his mother was a gospel singer.


As a boy, he struggled to reconcile the history of his Zulu people with the oppressed state of South African blacks under apartheid.


He said he often cried, saying to himself, “My gosh, imagine these were once great people.”


His talent was recognised at aged 11, when his first collections of poetry began to appear in newspapers and magazines.  After secondary school, he trained as a teacher at Maphumulo Teacher Training College before studying for a masters degree in African Studies at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, from where he graduated in 1959. His dissertation was based on Zulu poetry. Three years earlier, he had won Bantu Literary Competition Award for his poems.


As Kunene began to gain literary recognition in South Africa, the apartheid government began to see him as a Zulu nationalist and his work were banned. Kunene joined Umkhonto we Sizwe, the arm wing of the ANC and left South Africa in 1959 for a brief stint as a lecturer at the National University of Lesotho.


In 1960, Kunene left Lesotho to study for a PhD at the University of London but instead of pursuing his doctorate degree was drawn into politics under the guidance of the late Oliver Tambo who, in 1962, appointed Kunene as the ANC chief representative in London.


This was a period when the very existence of the organisation was in peril back in South Africa; its leaders – the Mandelas, the Sisulus and the Mbekis were on trial for treason.


Kunene was charged with keeping the flame of anti-apartheid movement alive from Africa House in Earl’s Court in London. Amid the mixed odours of the Ghanaian restaurant in the basement, with okra and fried fish dominating the mix in which the emerging African continent was expressing itself in Kwame Nkrumah’s dream of Pan-Africanism and liberation, a group of young educated South Africans led by Kunene were holding their own, intellectually and politically.


In 1972, Kunene became ANC director of finance, establishing the South African Exhibition Appeal which raised funds for the organisation. He received significant support from notable figures in the art world, including Pablo Picasso, Chagall, Giacometti and Rauschenberg.


The following year, Kunene married Mathabo in London. The early 1970s were testing years for the ANC; there were internal wrangling among the exiles in London and America.  Kunene left active political activism and followed his calling into academia.


He soon left London for America, first teaching at the University of Iowa and Stanford University before joining the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1975 as a lecturer in African literature and Zulu.


Kunene was easily at home at UCLA. He was very popular on campus and students flocked to his classes. He said he felt affinity to the African American community as he could relate to their situation, which he said intensified his desire to raise Black consciousness and for African Americans to appreciate their heritage and not feel belittled.


Kunene’s seminal work was perhaps “Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic” published in 1979. In the collection, he brought Emperor Shaka, the Zulu king back to readers in a way that many literary critics said was more convincing and appreciative than the tyrant and evil war general some of the history books documented him to be.


For example, Chinua Achebe referenced Kunene’s Emperor Shaka the Great at the end of his novel, Anthills of the Savannah. Charles R. Larson compared the work to Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”


The 1980s and 1990s were arguably Kunene’s most prolific, producing eight major works in both English and Zulu.  These included “Anthem of the Decade” (1981) and “The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain (1982).


As apartheid began to crumble, Kunene decided to return to South Africa in 1993, the very year that UNESCO honoured him as Africa’s Poet Laureate. In 2005, he was named South Africa’s poet Laureate.


He is survived by his wife,  a daughter and two sons. He died on August 11.


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