Mazisi Kunene, 76; Zulu Poet, Teacher Fought Apartheid
Even while living in exile, thousands of miles from South Africa, Mazisi Kunene wrote poetry from home.
Epic poems that explain the cycles of creation and destruction, the wisdom of the ancestors, the genius of the Zulu emperor Shaka were rooted in Kunene’s homeland but came alive again in Los Angeles, where he lived for nearly two decades.
Such work -- rich in African history, steeped in the nation’s oral tradition -- had a purpose beyond its artistic value. Poetry for Kunene was a weapon in the war to liberate the nation from the brutal system of apartheid.
Late in his life, after apartheid was toppled, and the exiles had returned home, Kunene was named the first poet laureate of democratic South Africa.
Kunene, a former UCLA professor and exiled African National Congress member, who wrote many of his most acclaimed works while living in Los Angeles, died Aug. 11 at Entabeni Hospital in Durban, South Africa. He was 76.
The cause of death was believed to be cancer, said his wife, Mathabo.
“It is perhaps only now that he is dead that it will be possible for many of us to come to understand who Mazisi Kunene was, and appreciate the unique place he occupies in the context of our struggle to redefine ourselves as Africans,” Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa, said in a statement read at Kunene’s funeral.
A prolific poet who also wrote essays and opinion pieces, Kunene wrote major works including “Zulu Poems” (1970), “Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic” (1979) and “Anthem of the Decades” (1981).
Though a vast trove of his work remains unpublished, his collection has earned him critical acclaim. He belongs to a generation of novelists and poets that came of age during the 1950s and 1960s, as African nationalism -- and the optimism inherent in it -- was on the rise, said Ntongela Masilela, professor of English and world literature at Pitzer College in Claremont.
“Mazisi Kunene is simply the greatest African poet in the 20th century. Period,” Masilela said. “He was in the forefront of liberating Africa culturally by making us go back to writing in African languages.”
As a rule Kunene wrote first in Zulu. Later some of his works were translated to other languages. The decision to write in Zulu set him apart from many African writers.
“There’s a psychology, a philosophy connected with the selection or even the shape of the words you use that is linked up with your experience as a person in the language,” he said in Southern African Review of Books, 1993. “I did not choose to write in Zulu; I did not have to make a decision. As you say in my tradition, you are actually inhabited by the spirits on your shoulders and they tell you what to do, what to say.”
Kunene’s epic poems are viewed as part of a tradition dating back centuries. In the Zulu tradition, the poets, or izimbongis, spoke on behalf of the people, defining social values, celebrating what was historically significant and acting as democratic agents, Kunene wrote in the introduction to “Emperor Shaka the Great.”
In his own work, Kunene spoke of the past, but made the past alive, relevant and purposeful for the times in which he lived.
“In the oral traditions of the Zulus these are not memorized stories,” said Harold Scheub, professor of African languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “These are re-creations, re-creations in terms of the present. Kunene was masterful at that. This is going to be his legacy.... Yes, these poems are history, but they’re much more than history.”
“Emperor Shaka the Great” is the story of the Zulu people and their emperor Shaka, whose rule during the 1800s extended across much of southern Africa. Shaka, whose military machine handed the British a major defeat many years after his death at the Battle of Ishwanda, offers a view of African people that contradicted the view put forth by colonial regimes.
After its publication in 1979, the book was distributed to African National Congress guerrillas to inspire them in their drive against the apartheid regime and to create a renewed sense of self, wrote Duncan Brown in his book “To Speak of This Land.”
The work begins with a call to remembrance:
After the night has covered the earth
Rouse us from the nightmare of forgetfulness
So that we may narrate their tales
You will see them, the forefathers, by the brightness of the Moon.
You will see their great processions as they enter the mountain!
Eternally their anthems emerge
How then can we be silent before the rising sun?
How wonderful! We can sing the sacred songs of our
By our ancient epics we are made beautiful.
Critics such as Charles R. Larson compared “Emperor Shaka the Great” to Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” in Contemporary Authors. But Kunene and his writings were unwelcome in his homeland.
In 1966 the government banned his poetry and that of many artists. Distance from home did not dull his passion as a writer -- or a revolutionary.
“My commitment to the liberation of the people of South Africa is not determined by where I am located,” Kunene told a Times reporter in 1985.
Mazisi Raymond Fakazi Mngoni Kunene was born May 12, 1930, in Durban. Like the emperor Shaka, he was a Zulu and grew up on the KwaZulu-Natal south coast, a member of a royal clan. As a boy Kunene struggled to reconcile the history of his people with the oppressed state of black people under apartheid, an inhumane system of racial segregation.
“I would find myself really crying, saying to myself, ‘My gosh, imagine these were once a great people,’ ” he told The Times. “I don’t think I can ever outgrow that kind of anger and outrage.”
In the late 1950s Kunene earned a master’s degree from the University of Natal and left South Africa to teach at a university in Lesotho, a former British colony that is now an independent nation. After a brief stay there, he headed to Britain intending to complete a doctorate. But the liberation movement needed him and took center in his life. In Britain he was a founding member of that nation’s anti-apartheid movement. In 1962 he became chief representative of the ANC in Europe and America.
“This meant educating the peoples of the world what apartheid meant to the millions of the oppressed,” Mbeki said.
In the mid-1970s, Kunene turned more of his attention to writing. In 1975 he joined the faculty of UCLA, which boasted a strong African language department, and taught African literature and Zulu. He made a home in Los Angeles with his wife, whom he married in 1973. In addition to his wife, Kunene is survived by a daughter, Lamakhosi; three sons, Zosukuma, Ra and Rre; and siblings Blessing Musawenkosi and Sthandiwe Joyce Kunene.
At UCLA, Kunene was a beloved figure on campus, outgoing and warm, whose door was always open for students, said Russell G. Schuh, who was chairman of UCLA’s Department of Linguistics during part of Kunene’s tenure.
“People just flocked to his classes,” Schuh said. “He had an office that led to a hallway. If he was there, there was always a crowd of people there to see him.”
The Kunenes’ home was a gathering place where students found warm meals, conversation, communion. In the community the family found a slice of home in a foreign land, Mathabo Kunene said in a telephone interview from South Africa.
“In the African American community we were so welcomed,” Mathabo Kunene said. “The African American community in the United States contributed to his ability to write so intensely. He could relate to the situation of African Americans, which intensified his desire to raise the consciousness of [black students] to encourage them to really appreciate their strength and their heritage and not feel belittled.”
While teaching and writing, Kunene and his family played a major role in galvanizing support for the anti-apartheid effort in the U.S., said Danny Schechter, a longtime friend and editor of Mediachannel.org.
“What began to happen in the early ‘90s, many -- particularly African American -- actors and actresses became tuned into South Africa and the ANC,” Schechter said.
Kunene retired from UCLA at the end of 1992 and the next year left Los Angeles and returned home to a changed South Africa. Nelson Mandela, who had been released in 1990, was one year away from becoming president. Apartheid was on its way out. At what is now known as the University of KwaZulu, Kunene was a professor in the Department of Zulu Language and Literature.
In March 2005 he was named poet laureate of South Africa. At the ceremony the nation’s Minister of Arts and Culture, Z. Pallo Jordan, praised Kunene and other “poets and writers who have never allowed themselves to be discouraged by the racist myths and outright colonialist lies asserting that ours is a continent that has no past worth remembering.”
Kunene wrote what could be considered a fitting epitaph for himself in the poem “Dedication to a Poet,” Scheub said. It begins with the image of the “Great poet, who sleeps between the rocks.” Kunene lived between the rocks of the present and the past.
You left them, cups overflowing with sweetness.
They drink and return again and again
Climbing the hill entangled with thorns
Until they stand on the open space
Shouting your name,
Presenting your beauty
To each generation that reawakens with your song.
A memorial will be held from noon to 2 p.m. Oct. 12 at UCLA’s James West Center. Details: UCLA’s African Studies Center, (310) 825-3686.