Mazisi Kunene Essay - Critical Essays

Kunene, Mazisi


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 In 1956, when he was twenty-six, a small unpublished collection of his Zulu poems entitled Idlozi Elingenantethelelo won the Bantu Literary Competition.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

Principal Works

Zulu Poems (poetry) 1970
Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic (poetry) 1979
Anthem of the Decades: A Zulu Epic (poetry) 1981
The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain (poetry) 1982


Kofi Awoonor (essay date 1975)

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 Zulu and in English. He insists upon a communal and oral quality in his work, which he sees as flowing directly from the Zulu oral poetic tradition. The Zulu poetry perfected during the reign of Shaka in the first half of the nineteenth century is an example of the Bantu oral traditions that have been largely preserved in spite of the brutal assault made upon the Bantu societies of southern Africa by white supremacist regimes. Special institutions such as competitions in the art of storytelling enabled the poets to continue their work within the fold of the community. Mission schools with their Christian dogma failed in their attempts to discredit the calling and art of poets as part of a disgustingly barbaric age when the people knew not the "true" God.

In the introduction to his collected poems, [Zulu Poems], first written in Zulu and later translated by him into English, Kunene writes: "These are not English poems, but poems directly evolved from a Zulu literary tradition." Kunene's use of that tradition embraces the techniques of the poetry and the philosophical features of its thought. In one of his earlier poems, "Elegy," his use of the Zulu epic form and dependence on ideas taken directly from his vernacular poetic tradition are intricately woven into the beginnings of his own personal style. It is, however, impossible to think of him as anything other than a Zulu poet whose art, even though written, owes its impact to the oral traditions.

The poem "Elegy" captures those elegiac feelings, expressed in understatements, calculated to disguise the intense sense of loss which the death of a particular man engenders and the meaning and impact of the symbolic death that the clans have suffered:

O Mzingeli son of the illustrious clans 1
You whose beauty spreads across the Tukela estuary
Your memory haunts like two eagles
We have come to the ceremonial ruins

We come to mourn the bleeding sun 5
We are the children of Ndungunya of the Dlamini clan
They whose grief strikes fear over the earth
We carry the long mirrors in the afternoon
Recasting time's play past infinite night.
O great departed ancestors 10
You promised us immortal life with immortal joys
But how you deceived us!

We invited the ugly salamander
To keep watch over a thousand years with a thousand sorrows
She watched to the far end of the sky 15

Sometimes terrorized by the feet of departed men
One day the furious storms
One day from the dark cyclone
One day in the afternoon
We gazed into a barren desert 20
Listening to the tremendous voices on the horizon
And loved again in the epics
And loved incestuous love!

We count missions
Strewn in the dust of ruined capitals 25
The bull tramples us on an anthill
We are late in our birth
Accumulating violent voices
Made from the lion's death
You whose love comes from the stars 30
Have mercy on us!
Give us the crown of thunder
That our grief may overhang the earth
O we are naked at the great streams
Wanderers greet us no more. 35

Kunene's debt is more to the elegiac tradition than to the epic one, even though the latter also comes into play. The poem begins with two lines of praise to the dead man, Mzingeli. The "illustrious clans" of line 1 establishes the dead hero's ancestry firmly in the tribe; line 2 describes his beauty, employing the typical Zulu style of linking the abstract concept with natural phenomenon, here the Tukela estuary, which suggests the brightness of waters and their many arms spread at an estuary. Line 3 links him heraldically with the eagles, brave predatory birds of dazzling strength. Line 4 emphasizes the desolation that has swept over the place of ceremonies, suggesting that when a sacred abode is destroyed, the ultimate abomination over-takes the people. Mzingeli is seen as the "bleeding sun," red with blood at its setting. So far, all the images, as in traditional Zulu poetry, are derived entirely from nature, emphasizing the link between man and the universe. In these images the related aspects of nature do not retain their own autonomy, but exist as elaborate features of the man they represent. Ndungunya is the immediate ancestor of the mourners of the Dlamini clan. Note that throughout the poem the poet uses the "we" of the traditional poem. "Where individualistic societies read 'I,' this philosophy [traditional Zulu thought] requires one to read 'I on behalf,'" Kunene states, insisting upon the communality of the poet's work. Lines 6 to 9 express in very visual and dramatic terms the image of the mourners in their fearful grief reflecting in their sorrow the "infinite night" of despair and dispossession. The mirrors reflect the sorrows of the past beyond the afternoon. This concludes the first section of the poem, illustrating an adherence to the Shakan form of the statement, its extension, development, and conclusion, as it deals here with the elegiac theme. Lines 10 to 12 use the voice of chastisement for the departed ones, a voice very common to the poetry of prayer and libation, which is independent of the dirge but tends to be incorporated within it, as can be seen in the Ewe dirge. These three lines are treated as a separate segment within the poem; it, however, leads to the fourth segment to which it is united by the reference to the departed men. This segment, lines 13 to 20, stresses the sorrow. The "ugly salamander" shares the myth of creation,...

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Anthony Delius (review date 14 May 1982)

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...

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K. L. Goodwin (essay date 1982)

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...

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Edward Blishen (review date 28 January 1983)

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...

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Richard F. Bauerle (review date Summer 1983)

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...

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Ursula A. Barnett (essay date 1983)

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...

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John Haynes (essay date January 1987)

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...

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Mbongeni Z. Malaba (essay date Winter 1988)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 228 words.)