Kunene, Mazisi (Writer)



(1930- ) poet

Mazisi Kunene was born in Durban, South Africa. He began writing poetry as a boy and by the age of 10 was already submitting poems to local newspapers and magazines. Kunene taught for four years in Natal, where he obtained his master’s degree. In 1959, he went to London to further his studies in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. In London, he founded the Anti-Apartheid Movement and became the director of education for the South African United Front. Kunene spent 34 years in exile in England and the United States for his leadership in the an-tiapartheid movement. He finally returned to South Africa in 1993 and became a professor in the Department of Zulu Language and Literature in the University of Natal, where he still works today. In the same year, he was appointed Africa’s poet laureate in the United Nation’s Education, Science and Cultural Organization.

Kunene’s poetry shows how the concerns and themes of his Zulu heritage can be used to enhance an understanding of South African history and society. His poems, such as “Encounter with the Ancestors” (1982), draw on the rich images and symbols of Zulu myths. They reveal ideas such as the virtues and wisdom of ancestors, which have been transmitted from generation to generation in Zulu oral tradition. His poetry expresses the relevance of these motifs in South African society today.

Kunene’s intimate involvement in the political movement against apartheid is also an essential element of his works, which, perhaps, explains why his first volume of poems, Zulu Poems (1970), was banned for many years in South Africa. One of his two epic poems, Emperor Shaka the Great, celebrates the heroism and strength of Shaka Zulu, the founder of the Zulu nation. Kunene’s favorable depiction of Shaka as a hero challenges the Eurocentric portrayal of the man as a tyrannical despot. His other epic poem Anthem of the Decades was published in 1981. Both poems were first published in the Zulu language and later translated into English.

In recognition of Kunene’s contributions to African literature, the Mazisi Kunene Library was jointly established by Create Africa South and the Kunene family. Its aims are to fund study in the Zulu language, to publish and distribute Kunene and other writers’ works in the Zulu language, and to provide research facilities for scholars interested in South African history and society. Kunene’s writing stands apart from other African voices that speak of alienation and anger. His works, especially the two epic poems, showcase the glory and richness of the African traditions and challenge Western readers to accept and appreciate the importance of African cultures. His use of Zulu language and style also provides a medium through which African cultural symbols and thought are effectively transmitted without appropriating English or other European diction.

Another Work by Mazisi Kunene

The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain. London: Heinemann, 1982.

Works about Mazisi Kunene

Barnett, Ursula. A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1914-1980). Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press/London: Sinclair Browne, 1983.

Goodwin, K. L. Understanding Poetry: A Study of Ten Poets. London: Heinemann, 1982.

Haynes, John. “Kunene’s Shaka and the Idea of a Poet as Teacher.” Ariel 18, no. 1 (1987): 39-50. Maduka, Chidi. “Poetry, Humanism and Apartheid: A Study of Mazisi Kunene’s Zulu Poems,” Griot 4, nos. 1-2 (1985): 57-72.

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