Mazisi Kunene Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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 In 1956, when he was twenty-six, a small unpublished collection of his Zulu poems entitled Idlozi Elingenantethelelo won the Bantu Literary Competition.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.

Major Works

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."

Critical Reception

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."