Mazisi Kunene, an epic Zulu poet, is remembered during Poetry Africa

Writer, poet and academic Es’kia Mphahlele once wrote about the damage that the television series Shaka Zulu caused, saying it made a mockery of the image and the history of the Zulu monarch by presenting his life as an orgy of violence and grotesqueness.

He makes particular mention of the use of the dead as decorative corpses, and the presentation of the “witchdoctor” as a repulsive ghoul, rather than as a healer and adviser.

Long before this destructive, apartheid regime-sponsored TV series, Mazisi Kunene’s epic poems, such as Emperor Shaka the Great and Anthem of the Decades functioned as works of corrective history that not only sought to reground the historical legacy of the Zulu, and therefore the African, but were also an expression of the African as cosmological being.

In the publication The Thinker, Ademola Araoye cites scholar Ntongela Masilela: “It seems to me that Mazisi Kunene’s unsurpassed poetic act was a desperate and dramatic attempt to resurrect African cosmology in the modern world … While he appears to us as a great poet of African spiritual crisis, he may appear to posterity as the last great diviner of African cosmology.”

Mazisi Raymond Kunene was born in Durban in 1930 and grew up in Amahlongwa, on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast. An early writer, Kunene was already publishing his works in newspapers and magazines at the age of 11.

He earned his master’s degree in the arts from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 1959 for a paper titled An Analytical Survey of Zulu Poetry, Both Traditional and Modern. Travelling to Britain to further his studies, Kunene got subsumed into the political crises of the day, eventually becoming the ANC’s chief representative in Western Europe and the United Kingdom in 1964.

He picked up on his studies in the United States and, in 1973, took up a teaching post at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), eventually holding the post of professor of African languages and literature at that campus. He returned to South Africa in 1992.

Kunene was named South Africa’s poet laureate in 2005 before passing on in 2006. His wife, Mathabo, the executive director of the Mazisi Kunene Foundation, which oversees the Durban-based Mazisi Kunene Museum, says his epic poems and other works stand as a lasting testament that one can write in their mother tongue and be world-famous.

This year, the 20th installation of Poetry Africa coincides with the 10th year of the commemoration of his death and the 200th commemoration of the Zulu monarchy. The festival, running from October 10 to 15, has been declared the Mazisi Kunene Week and will include tours to the museum and seminars on his life and work.

The museum has already catalogued about 80% of his various manuscripts as part of a University of KwaZulu-Natal-supported digitisation programme.

“South Africans have never really got to experience Mazisi’s work and it is a huge treasure trove,” says musician Madala Kunene, who recorded a poem with Kunene. “Partly, it’s a function of exile that people in countries such as China, Japan and France are perhaps more familiar with his [self-translated] work than we are.

“There is an astounding depth to him, and also remarkable political commitment. It’s only now that his work is surfacing, thanks to the efforts of his wife and family.”

The guitarist says there was a particular charm and mysticism to Kunene’s insistence on writing by hand that was not necessarily anti-technology but had more to do with being in tune with the rhythms of one’s creative source.

Mathabo says that, when the foundation was established, she was surprised to discover that her husband had written so much. “The foundation is the overarching idea emanating from when Kunene received the poet laureate award in 2005. We then decided that perhaps we need a structure to interrogate and accommodate the work that Kunene had produced.

“Since some of my children had gone back to the US, I decided to turn the house we lived in into a museum. There we have the unpublished manuscripts available for exhibition.

“When we perused the boxes from the US containing manuscripts, there were about 47 manuscripts of thick hardcover exercise books of many sizes, and many pieces of paper. Like any artist he would write at the back of a cigarette pack.In our house, the rule was that there is no scrap piece of paper. Every piece of paper lying around had to be looked at and redeemed [for remnants of his work].”

Mathabo says the manuscripts have yielded about 11 000 poems. Emperor Shaka the Great, whose initial isiZulu transcript is known as uNodumehlezi ka Menzi, will be published on November 23, the first time this work will be available in isiZulu in South Africa.

In addition, the museum has artefacts and photographs tracing Kunene’s 35-year exile period.

The site is quickly becoming something of a pilgrimage centre, with Kunene’s former students coming by to assist in the archiving and cataloguing.

Susan Anderson, fformer curator at the UCLA Library Special Collections, recently spent a few months at the museum ordering the works into a collection, which includes everything from anecdotes to love notes.

This year, Mathabo says, some of Kunene’s black students are bringing a thousand books filled with writings from the African diaspora to donate to the museum.

Whenever funding allows, the foundation runs an annual school poetry competition in isiZulu, called Zwakala.

Despite all the benevolence, Mathabo confesses to having concerns about the museum’s sustainability: “Each year, it is getting harder and harder for us to keep it open. We have [partly] funded it through some of the businesses we have here in South Africa.”

Kunene’s intellectual legacy and the partnership with the University of KwaZulu-Natal is particularly crucial in the sense that it maps out a path for a decolonial epistemology, something Kunene demystified by making it his life’s work. His writings are vital in the myth-making and historicisation necessary to renew severed spirits.

Mathabo says that, according to a memorandum of understanding, some of Kunene’s archives were to be relocated to the university, a position they are reconsidering because the recent university protests have seen parts of libraries being destroyed.

“It’s a pity as there is a high possibility of additional funding from the university, should parts of his archive be relocated to the university base,” she says.

Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011.

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