Building a literary legacy

Mazisi Kunene's widow Mathabo has worked tirelessly to preserve the heritage left behind by the late poet. (Photo: Rogan Ward)

Mazisi Kunene's widow Mathabo has worked tirelessly to preserve the heritage left behind by the late poet. (Photo: Rogan Ward)

This is a significant year for the Mazisi Kunene Foundation, which commemorates the passing of the late poet laureate Kunene a decade ago. It is also the 200-year celebration of the history of the Zulu people. It is a time of philosophical introspection and reflection by all South Africans. History, identity and culture are firmly on the table. 

Why did Kunene write exclusively in isiZulu? “From the very beginning, when I started writing, I had no choice but to write in [isi]Zulu. Language was therefore a combative weapon that had to be used against occupation by foreigners. Language was also meant to operate as an instrument for the reassertion of African values, African history and a whole ideology justifying the existence of the African world …” wrote Kunene.

It is clear that language is culture, which, by extension, articulates identity. Kunene pursued his own vision as well as that of the collective African continent. These concerns lay at the heart of the debate on the reimagining and renewal of the post-1994 South Africa. 

The Mazisi Kunene Foundation was established in 2005 and is rooted in one of the many conversations Kunene held with sculptor Andries Botha, in which the nurturing and securing of African intellectual property was discussed, notwithstanding his own anxiety about the fragility of his creative oeuvre. It is a shared anxiety of many South African artists that has to be seen within the larger context of African creativity and the disappearing archive of African intellectual thought.   

It is therefore significant that the Foundation can finally celebrate the impending publication of uNodumehlezi kaMenzi (Emperor Shaka the Great) and Inhlokomo Yeminyaka (Anthem of Decades) in their original isiZulu. Both books were originally published in English.

On the second floor of the Mazisi Kunene Museum, which was previously the Kunene family house, Mazisi’s widow Mathabo — mother of his daughter Lamakhosi, and his sons, Zosukuma Izizwe, Rre and Ra — carefully turns the pages of a visibly aging maroon-and-white hardcover notebook.  An orange post-it stuck on the cover reads “Book 9:  uDondolo luka Nozimanga,” while another label states “Volume-125 Poems:  5 … Pages – 188.”  Inside, the pages are adorned with line after line of Kunene’s painstakingly neat cursive writing, penned in black.

This is just one of more than 10 000 of Mazisi’s unpublished manuscripts, says Mathabo.  They are all housed here in the Museum, which receives technical support from the Department of Arts and Culture’s Museum Services in KwaZulu-Natal and is managed by the Mazisi Kunene Foundation.  

Visitors to the Museum soon realise Kunene’s works were produced in a family context. The Museum portrays him as universal as well as intimate, and acknowledges his unmistakeable African roots. The striking black-and-white photographs on display reflect his personal history as well as the larger cultural history and political struggle for a free and fair South Africa.   

Born in Natal in May 1930, Kunene began his literary journey as a child, writing poems and short stories in isiZulu. As the head of the African United Front, he opposed the apartheid government and went into self-imposed exile in London in 1959. There he studied at the distinguished School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and continued his anti-apartheid activism, becoming the main representative of the ANC in Europe, and later in the United States. 

In 1975, Kunene became the Professor of African Literature at the University of California. He held this post for almost two decades, returning to South Africa in 1992, where he taught at the University of Natal (renamed the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2004) until his retirement. He passed away in August 2006 after a lengthy battle with cancer, leaving an indelible mark on the literary world.  

Kunene was honoured as Africa’s poet laureate in 1993 and in 2005, a year before he died, he was acknowledged as the inaugural South Africa poet laureate. “The Kunene Collection is a national asset,” says Botha. “The passion behind this endeavour is essentially a continuing love story between Mrs Kunene and her husband, largely funded by the family’s own resources and passion.”

African literature expert Professor Ntongela Masilela says: “Mazisi Kunene is a great poet. His achievement is so towering and monumental that one can postulate that he is arguably the greatest poet Africa has produced in the 20th century. 

His two epics, Emperor Shaka The Great (1979) and Anthem of the Decades (1981), have no parallels in African literary history. One of the principal objectives that Kunene appropriated from [Zulu poet] Benedict Vilakazi was to make certain that African poetic and cultural expressions in the African languages, originating in Izibongo poetic traditions, negotiate and survive the dialectical unity and divide of tradition and modernity.” 

Mathabo says Kunene felt it was important for a nation to develop “its own literature, its own voice, and a body of work to be taught in schools. He wrote incredible epic poems in isiZulu — some were 35 000 words — and they were translated into other languages. The world is reading him, but South Africa has access to only very few of his works”.

She believes that the work belongs to South Africa, Africa and the world. It is an extraordinary legacy document that will anchor the youth in a cultural and intellectual framework as they face a daunting future. “We as adults are guilty of withholding a centre that is urgently demanded by young people,” she says.  “In 1976 we marched against oppression of a different kind.  Now we are still overshadowed by the big statues of the same people who oppressed them. But what do we replace them with? We don’t have access to deep philosophical writings from people like Vilakazi, [Herbert] Dhlomo or Kunene.  And young people are restless, because you can’t legislate respect, and as young people in South Africa, they are saying they have nothing to hold onto — you can’t just be political.”  

To this end, one of the curatorial mandates of the Foundation is to consolidate Kunene’s work and protect it against deterioration as a legacy document for the nation. It hasn’t been easy to find partnerships with institutions of learning that could support the Foundation’s endeavour for conservation, research, publication and education. “We were actually reaching a state of absolute deterioration of the fragile, paper-based archive, which necessitated establishing a suitable, climate-controlled environment,” says Mathabo.  “A lot of work has gone into this.”  

Kunene was an educator, and to maintain his legacy, the Foundation “adopted” KwaHluzingqondo High School in Kunene’s hometown of aMahlongwa, on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, in partnership with Bidvest Freight. Additional funds were raised by the Foundation, including donations from Airports Company South Africa and the Dube Tradeport for the Mazisi Kunene Centre of Excellence. It houses a science and computer centre and a reading and research library. The Foundation’s partnership with the school has raised its matric pass rate from 33% in 2009 to 89.9% in 2014. Drilling a borehole for the school was another essential intervention.

The poetry project Zwakala sees the Foundation visiting 25 schools annually; it encourages young people to write in their own languages. “In Mazisi’s mind, as a young African growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, his mind was already outside; he was never confined to the space defined by apartheid,” says Mathabo.  “He said the reason for this was that his parents insisted on [preserving their] language — he used language as a weapon against the colonialists who came into South Africa.”

Botha says that the works of writers like Kunene are crucial in developing a collective vision for South Africans.  “Economic and personal freedom is the same idea.”   

Visit the Mazisi Kunene Museum at 8 Delville Avenue, Glenwood, Durban. Tel: +27 31 205 2912. 
www.mazisikunene.com