His legacy should not be forgotten

The passing on of Professor Mazisi Kunene in Durban brings many thoughts of the past and the present to mind. Not least of these is how easy it is to forget the past and be ignorant of how figures from that past have influenced the present that we currently enjoy.

In later years, Mazisi Kunene had something of a profile of a Zulu nationalist — his major book-length poetry works of the 1970s, Emperor Shaka the Great and Anthem of the Decades, were heroic recountings of the Zulu past and were partly dedicated to Mangosuthu Buthelezi, at the time that Buthelezi’s Inkatha Freedom Party was in direct and violent conflict with the underground African National Congress inside South Africa and was largely perceived as an agent of the ruling, racist Nationalist government.

This was the rough and tumble of exile versus ‘inzile” politics, when alliances shifted in unpredictable ways. There were internal struggles as far afield as London and Lusaka between the black nationalist factions of the ANC and the mainstream that embraced all races in the Congress Alliance. (If you listen carefully, you can still hear the rumbles of these inevitable contradictions and confrontations today.)

Things seemed to be so much simpler way back then. We, the black guys, were all on the same side, more or less. The only breakaway from the orthodoxy of the ANC was Robert Sobukwe’s Pan Africanist Congress, who seemed to be out on a limb, until their Sharpeville and Langa marches precipitated the massacres that would bring the world out on the side of the oppressed masses of South Africa.

This propelled us into the swinging Sixties, when so many South Africans were also propelled into exile.


Kunene was not just a fine scholar, equally versed in the depths of Zulu and English history and literature. Like any educated black South African, he was also politically conscious and made it his duty to use that consciousness to its fullest effect. He was a card-carrying member of the ANC.

In exile in London, he became its chief representative at a time when the very existence of the organisation was in peril back home, its leadership, including the Mandelas, the Sisulus and the Mbekis, were on trial for their lives, on behalf of all of us, in Pretoria. Kunene and others, uncelebrated, were holding the fort, keeping the flame alive from Africa House in Earl’s Court in London. Amid the mixed odours of the Ghanaian restaurant in the basement, with okra and dried fish dominating the mix in which the emerging African continent was expressing itself in Kwame Nkrumah’s extravagant dream of liberation, a handful of South Africans, led by Kunene, were holding their own, intellectually and politically.

It was tough times. It was cold and it was the depths of the Cold War. It was confusing. Many of us thought that we would never come back and some of us, indeed, never did.

Those were the exile years, the Robben Island years, the Tambo years. Another long leg of our history.

The political side was gradually consolidated. Some clung to it. Others dispersed into deeper diasporas. Kunene effectively dropped out of the ANC and followed his calling into academia and the exposition of words, which took him to places as far afield as California and Burma.

No wonder people lost touch with each other. But learning, sharing and teaching were always at the root of what it was all about. The changing politics of the world frequently got in the way. People took positions and lost touch with each other. The enemy was also busy dividing us in order to consolidate its rule. Nothing new in that.

I lost touch with where Kunene was at, apart from picking up his writings now and then. So did many others.

And then, as if it had only been yesterday since we’d seen each other, we fumbled into a writers’ meeting in Durban. It was already the 21st century — another place, another millennium.

I regret that I didn’t download all his memories before he left the house. There would certainly have been many of them.

The whole point is that so much of what has made us what we are is moving on. As someone said, when an old person dies, a whole library burns down.

The library that was Kunene is deep and wide. It will take us a long time to understand fully the depth of words he explored and exposed to those who cared to listen and read.

The politics of those words, whichever way we take them, will be conflicting and challenging for generations to come. But it is important that the mixed legacy of a man like Kunene, who moved through so many environments, but always remained true to himself, should not be forgotten.

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