Mazisi Kunene 1930–
(Born Mazisi kaMdabuli Kunene; also known as Mazisi Raymond Kunene) South African poet.
The following entry presents an overview of Kunene's career through 1994.
Kunene is best known for his Zulu poetry, much of which he has translated into English. His two Zulu epics, Emperor Shaka the Great (1979) and Anthem of the Decades (1981), are widely recognized as masterful works and are considered his greatest literary achievements. While Kunene utilizes the oral traditions of Zulu literature and incorporates Zulu culture, religion, and history into his works, his poetry is also noted for its focus on pan-African and universal concerns. Believing that the function of literature is "not entertainment but primarily to teach social values and serious philosophical concepts," Kunene frequently addresses political, ethical, and aesthetic issues in his works.
Born in Durban, Natal Province, Kunene began writing as a boy and at an early age was submitting poems to newspapers and magazines. In 1956, when he was twenty-six, a small unpublished collection of his Zulu poems entitled Idlozi Elingenantethelelo won the Bantu Literary Competition. Kunene earned a B.A. and M.A. from Natal University, and his master's thesis, "An Analytical Survey of Zulu Poetry Both Traditional and Modern," has become a widely cited study of Zulu literature. In 1959, after serving one year as the head of the Department of African Studies at what is now the National University of Lesotho, Kunene left Africa for England, where he attended the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. A member of the Anti-Apartheid and Boycott Movement in Britain from 1959 to 1968, Kunene has also served as Director of Education for the South African United Front. In 1962 he became chief representative for the African National Congress in Europe and the United States, eventually becoming its Director of Finance in 1972. After serving as a visiting professor in African Literature at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, Kunene became an associate professor in African Literature and Languages at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has also held positions in the Pan-African Youth Movement and the Committee of African Organizations.
Kunene's first published verse collection, Zulu Poems (1970), contains elegiac, lyrical, epic, and African resistance poems. Stating that these poems "are not English poems but poems directly evolved from a Zulu literary tradition," Kunene incorporates in the volume such Zulu poetic conventions as repetition, parallelism, understatement, and traditional naming devices. Emperor Shaka the Great, a verse narrative comprised of seventeen sections and more than seventeen hundred lines, describes the life and achievements of Emperor Shaka, a nineteenth-century Zulu leader who unified various Zulu fiefdoms and attempted to deal diplomatically with white settlers prior to his assassination by jealous family members and political advisors. While other authors have portrayed Shaka as ruthless and autocratic, Kunene's Shaka is a devoted son, brilliant military leader, and dedicated pan-Africanist who often acted magnanimously. Kunene has stated that it was his intention in this work to "cut through the thick forest of propaganda and misrepresentation that have been submitted by colonial reports and historians." In his next epic, Anthem of the Decades, Kunene details the Zulu creation myth. Divided into three parts, this volume, as stated by K. L. Goodwin, "is a cosmological epic concerning itself with the reasons for the creation of mankind; his place in the universe; the nature of creation and creativity; the apparent contradictions of life, death, and eternity; and human social organization." The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain (1982) contains more than one hundred poems in which Kunene promotes humanity, appreciation of nature, social action, and ancestral wisdom. Critics note that Kunene upholds the past as a source of inspiration for those blacks involved in South Africa's struggle for political freedom. In the poem "In Praise of the Ancestors," for example, Kunene writes: "[The ancestors] are the mystery that envelopes our dream. / They are the power that shall unite us. / They are the strange truth of the earth. / They come from the womb of the universe."
Although Kunene's works were banned by the proapartheid South African government at various times during his career, critical and popular reaction to his work has generally been positive, with most reviewers praising his adept use of traditional Zulu poetic forms, his commitment to pan-African issues, and his incorporation of philosophical and political concerns into his verse. Some, however, have noted that the English translations of Kunene's poetry lack the emotional intensity of the original Zulu versions and have faulted the poet for what they consider his biased glorification of Shaka and the generally didactic tone of his work. Despite this, K. L. Goodwin reflects the opinion of many when he states that Emperor Shaka the Great and Anthem of the Decades are "the two most ambitious poems to come out of modern Africa. With modest confidence in the face of much discouragement, [Kunene] has created from his Zulu inheritance two epics … that are both thoroughly African and at the same time of international significance."
SOURCE: "Contemporary Samples of English-Speaking African Poetry," in The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture, and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975, pp. 193-225.
[Awoonor is a Ghanaian poet, editor, critic, novelist, and educator who has stated that his work "takes off from the world of all our aboriginal instincts." In the following excerpt, he discusses Kunene's incorporation of Zulu oral traditions in Zulu Poems.]
Modern poetry from Africa has [focused] … on the tension between the traditional and the modern world. Its themes have ranged from Negritude's race proclamations to the hymnal verse inspired by the patriotic sentiments raised by the anticolonial struggle of the postwar years. Most of the poets took their direction from external sources;… Negritude borrowed heavily from French symbolism and surrealism, while the English-speaking poets of the immediate postwar generation borrowed from Victorian verse and Methodist hymnology. The later poetry in English-speaking Africa derives from Yeats, Pound, Eliot, and the modern imagists, who make up the English and American literature syllabuses of the new African universities.
A few of the poets, however, owe their growth in style and language very largely to the genius of traditional oral poetry. One of these is the Zulu poet Mazisi Kunene, who has worked both in his native...
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SOURCE: "Effects of Exile," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4128, May 14, 1982, p. 541.
[Delius is a South African poet, novelist, dramatist, nonfiction writer, and journalist who has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers. In the following excerpt, he offers a negative assessment of Anthem of the Decades.]
Mazisi Kunene's 300-page dithyramb [Anthem of the Decades] is dedicated to all the women of Africa, especially the renowned Zulu women, as well as to a couple of goddesses in the African pantheon. Anthem of the Decades is an enormously expanded version of the folktale which tells how death came to man. God decided that man should be immortal and sent a chameleon to tell him, then changed his mind and sent a salamander hurrying after to tell man death was to be his lot. In Kunene's retelling of it all the powers of heaven and earth, and even those under the earth, become involved in the race between the dilatory chameleon and the speedy salamander. The epic sags more and more under interminable speeches and arguments between gods and goddesses in lines like these:
Yet if man is destroyed, it will be his destiny alone,
For man and the Gods do not suffer the same fate.
Even though it may seem they too have been destroyed,
It will only be a temporary...
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SOURCE: "Mazisi Kunene," in Understanding African Poetry: A Study of Ten Poets, Heinemann Educational Books Ltd., 1982, pp. 173-201.
[Goodwin is an Australian critic, editor, and educator who has stated that "[my] ambition is to come upon a critical theory that is novel, useful, and intelligible." In the following essay, he provides a stylistic and thematic overview of Kunene's major works, calling them "thoroughly African."]
By a paradox of contemporary publishing opportunities, Mazisi Kunene, who writes in Zulu and then translates some of his poetry into English, has had much more of his work appear in translation than in the original. Born in Durban in 1930, he began writing as a boy, and by the age of ten or eleven was submitting poems to newspapers and magazines. A small collection of [unpublished] poems in Zulu, Idlozi Elingenantethelelo, won an award in the Bantu Literary Competition in 1956, and poems were published in Ilanga laseNatal and the African Teachers' Journal. But it was not until after he came to England in 1959, initially to study the Zulu literary tradition but interrupting his studies to become an official of the African National Congress, that English versions of his Zulu poems began to appear.
If Dennis Brutus is the most Westernized of all the poets considered in [Understanding African Poetry: A Study of Ten Poets], Mazisi Kunene is...
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SOURCE: "Tumbled Traditions," in The Times Educational Supplement, No. 3474, January 28, 1983, p. 26.
[Blishen is an English writer and editor. In the following excerpt from a review of The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, he praises the original Zulu versions of Kunene's poetry, but states that the English translations lack emotional impact.]
One longs to be able to read and understand [The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain] in the original: some of the songs are printed in Gikuyu in an appendix, and it is easy to see what verbal music has been lost. As it has in Mazisi Kunene's translations of his own poems from the Zulu. I have heard Kunene reading Zulu poetry, and have never encountered anything like it—or half as wonderfully orchestral. In English these poems—so many shot through with the grief of a people robbed, together with a determination to hang on to the inner forms of what has been outwardly stolen—are clearly no more than murmuring hints of the originals. In English, too much sounds merely grand. In his introduction, Kunene accompanies an account of the essentially public character of Zulu poetry with a scornful attack on those African poets who, writing in English, invite judgment as contributors to a European tradition. He seems to think that they are choosing "the temporary attractions of cheap popularity," though God knows, in that tradition few poets are...
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SOURCE: A review of The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain: Poems, in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 3, Summer, 1983, p. 505.
[In the following, Bauerle offers a highly favorable review of The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, briefly discussing the ways in which Kunene uses language to enhance his themes.]
A collection of over 100 poems, mostly short lyrics, Kunene's latest volume [The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain] reveals an abiding faith in the deep grammar of Zulu culture and an indifference to surface events. In his introduction he sets forth his commitments: to be authentic, one must be true to the social ethic of one's people; one can surround oneself with technology's wonders and still be "as contemptible as a dog"; "social action and social cohesiveness" are what matter; to understand their meaning in today's murky world one needs the wisdom of the "Ancestors," the "Beautiful Ones."
The title of Kunene's book seems to be carefully chosen. The first part is illuminated directly by two poems, "In Praise of Ancestors" and "Encounter with the Ancestors," the second part by a poem entitled "Journey to the Sacred Mountains." As the lines from this last-named poem affirm, "Even now the forefathers still live." In the Sacred Mountains "we listened to the great epics / we heard the voices of ancient poets / we were basking in the legends of our...
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SOURCE: "Poetry," in A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1940–1980), Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1983, pp. 42-112.
[Barnett is a Yugoslavian-born South African critic who frequently writes about black South African literature. In the following excerpt, she surveys Kunene's career, commenting in particular on the poet's emphasis on history, cultural identity, and Zulu oral traditions.]
The poems for Kunene's first volume in English, Zulu Poems, were taken from a larger selection he had originally written in Zulu, and were translated by the poet himself. His subsequent work in epic poetry was also first written in Zulu, though there is little chance of its being published in South Africa today. Kunene's allegiance as a poet, however, is to an African world view rather than a particular African language. His purpose in translating, and therefore promulgating these poems among a larger audience, is to encourage a return to oral tradition in literature. This tradition, he explained at a symposium on Contemporary South African Literature and Inaugural Conference of the African Literary Association held at the university of Texas at Austin in 1975, contains the following elements:
it interprets, focuses, and analyzes the past as well as the present and then creates a perspective for the future. In African...
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SOURCE: "Kunene's Shaka and the Idea of the Poet as Teacher," in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1, January, 1987, pp. 39-50.
[In the following essay, Haynes examines the ways in which Kunene mythicizes and embellishes Shaka in Emperor Shaka the Great, briefly relating Kunene's strategies to recent trends in South African history.]
In an essay published a year after the English version of Emperor Shaka the Great, Mazisi Kunene writes that "Classical African literature takes it as its primary strategy to broaden the base of the characters through mythification and symbolism" ["The Relevance of African Cosmological Systems to African Literature Today," African Literature Today, No. 11, 1980]. As he says in the poem itself, "Indeed, artists embellish their past to inspire their children." What I want to look at is the trend of this mythification and embellishment. In doing this I shall not make any claims about the capacity of a poem to change people's attitudes or actions, nor will I deal with the ways in which a poem, as opposed to some other genre, might achieve such a goal. These are very vexed questions, neither of which has been tackled by African critics, even those who emphasize the traditional African artist's role of teacher. All I can claim is that if literature can have any bearing on political or social circumstance it is likely to be at...
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SOURCE: "Super-Shaka: Mazisi Kunene's Emperor Shaka the Great," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1988, pp. 477-88.
[In the following essay, Malaba questions Kunene's over-whelmingly positive depiction of Shaka in Emperor Shaka the Great. He also faults Kunene's dismissal of other important South African leaders, stating "their quest for position and power is not explored or judiciously considered."]
Light from the past passes through a kind of glass to reach us. We can either look for the accurate though somewhat unexciting image or we can look for the glorious technicolour.
This is where the writer's integrity comes in. Will he be strong enough to overcome the temptation to select only those facts which flatter him? If he succumbs he will have branded himself as an untrustworthy witness. But it is not only his personal integrity as an artist which is involved. The credibility of the world he is attempting to re-create will be called to question and he will defeat his own purpose if he is suspected of glossing over inconvenient facts. We cannot pretend that our past was one long, technicolour idyll. We have to admit that like other people's pasts ours had its good as well as its bad sides. [Chinua Achebe, "The Role of the Writer in a New Nation," African Writers on Writing, 1978]
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Alvarez-Pereyre, Jacques. "Vernacular Poetry." In his The Poetry of Commitment in South Africa, translated by Clive Wake, pp. 117-29. London: Heinemann, 1984.
Overview of "the tradition of black protest poetry in South Africa which was first to express itself in the vernacular languages and then, without exhausting itself in this form, in English also." The critic provides commentary on such South African Xhosa and Zulu poets as Kunene, S. E. Q. Mqhayi, and Benedict W. Vilakazi.
Igwe, B. Ezuma. "Three African Poets: A Critical Review." In New African Literature and the Arts, Volume 3, edited by Joseph Okpaku, pp. 224-34. New York: The Third Press, 1973.
Comparative review of Zulu Poems by Kunene, Night of My Blood by Kofi Awoonor, and A Reed in the Tide: A Selection of Poems by J. P. Clark. Igwe concludes: "These three are in the tradition of the best poets from Africa."
Luchembe, Chipasha. "An Interview with Mazisi Kunene on African Philosophy." Ufahamu: Journal of the African Activist Association 7, No. 2 (1977): 3-27.
Relates Kunene's views on various topics, including African philosophy, particularly the role of the individual in African society, the impact of...
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