/ 16 March 2017

Shaka epic born anew, in isiZulu

Mazisi Kunene.
Mazisi Kunene.

One of the principal functions of uNodumehlezi ka Menzi, the late Professor Mazisi Kunene’s original isiZulu manuscript for his widely translated epic poem Emperor Shaka the Great, is in how it reframes Shaka’s humanity away from the colonial image of the savage despot.

“Shaka was a philosopher king who took on great nations,” says Mazisi Kunene Foundation trustee John Charter. “In Isandlwana he did that.”

Charter’s emphasis on Isandlwana, a battle that saw the Zulus defeat a British colonial army after Shaka’s reign (the battle took place under the reign of Cetshwayo), is clearly coloured by his English roots. But in the flurry of activity that is Durban’s Mazisi Kunene Museum a few days before the official launch of the book, his statement becomes indicative of all the lives Kunene touched and continues to touch with his work long after his death in 2006.

Kunene spent the bulk of his adult life in exile, including a long stint as a professor of literature at the University of California in Los Angeles. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that the accents of different nationalities fill the Glenwood museum space. In various rooms, on antique tables set atop the creak of wooden floors, are versions of Kunene’s Emperor Shaka the Great (first published in 1979) and Anthem of the Decades in Japanese.

Occupying centre stage in a room flanked by drawings emanating from a collaboration between Kunene and fellow exiled South African artist Dumile Feni are blown-up copies of a handwritten manuscript of uNodumehlezi ka Menzi, depicting furious Tipp-Exed and scribbled edits. They give a window of insight into Kunene’s working process — one more attuned to the rhythms of his own mind than to technological convenience.

The original version of uNodumehlezi kaMenzi is being launched on March 18 as the finale to the 20th Time of the Writer festival. The condition of the isiZulu manuscript was less than perfect and in some cases had to be restored by a team of academics led by Professor Otto Nxumalo, a literary academic and author.

Twenty-eight pages of the isiZulu manuscript were missing, necessitating a reverse translation mimicking the poet’s turn of phrase and a multitude of other artistic considerations.

“Because some of my team were not confident in translating poetry, I called on Fraser Mtshali and Canaan Makhoba from the University of Zululand,” says Nxumalo.

“There were cases where we had to create new words, as the poet himself would, and add a glossary. We also had to translate a foreword by Ntongela Masilela, a lengthy one written in English, in that case also accounting for the passage of time in terms of orthography.”

Kunene wrote primarily in isiZulu, but his works have been translated into languages such as Turkish, German and Japanese.

“As far as isiZulu was concerned, I think he wanted to show its full expressive and artistic potential,” says Nxumalo. “When it comes to translation, he didn’t approach it as one would approach a mathematical formula; he was more idiomatic. In the case where there was no idiomatic equivalent, he would transfer the inflections and sensibilities of isiZulu into English.”

In a version of Emperor Shaka the Great, Kunene expounds on his approach to translating the book into English, an end-justifies-the-means type of manifesto consistent with his restorative agenda.

“I have used words that correspond to similar concepts in English, although the meanings in the two societies may not be exactly the same … I have eliminated colonial terminology like hut, headman, chief, etc, and rather based my terminology on the corresponding terms in both societies.

“I have projected the concept of power as defined by the society in question and as historically comparable with the concepts of another society under comparable circumstances. For instance, in Britain before unification, there were regions referred to as kingdoms, even though some were no more than a third of what would amount to a princedom in the early Nguni and Sotho states of the pre-Shakan period.”

Says Nxumalo: “This book is important, because white writers were in conflict with uShaka. There was a consensus to present him in a negative light. They did so with an attitude of impunity.

“For example, they accused him of killing his mother; they portrayed him as impossibly ugly — which could not be if his mother was achingly beautiful and his father’s praise names alluded to ‘a body without flaws’. So badly did they want to demonise him that his death presented a free-for-all in terms of the negative historicisation.”

Adding a layer of labour to the process was not only Kunene’s predilection for handwritten script but the quickly changing nature of isiZulu orthography.

“Like for example, lo mfana [this boy] is now written as two different words. But people who last studied isiZulu more than 10 years ago would write it as one word. So there was a whole team looking into that aspect.”

Nxumalo’s team included academics and linguists Dr Gugu Mazibuko, Dr Nokukhanya Ngcobo, Nhlanhla Gxala, Nokuthula Ntshingila and Xolani Ngidi.

“As far as the poet’s technique is concerned, we had to carefully examine the poet’s use of language in order to discern poetic licence from typos,” explains Nxumalo about the challenges posed by the missing 28 pages. “We sometimes had to create new isiZulu words from the English words. His oeuvre contains a lot of invented words and idioms.”

The isiZulu text is in and of itself an exhibition of the intrinsic richness of the mother tongue, with an eminent inheritor of an oral tradition transmuting a story into text.

Using Shaka as its vehicle, it portrays the ingenuity and complexity of Africans as being equal to that of other societies considered superior in the colonial age. It is not only about Shaka but also about other kings, equally legitimate and sovereign, who he eventually defeated.

“The Ndwandwes, the Mthe-thwas, the Gumedes, the Qwabes, the Mhlongos — these were all larger kingdoms,” says Nxumalo. “These were legitimate kings, so it is about the art of empire building and information gathering. It is about grappling with other civilisations and their knowledge as they enter your midst.”

Mathabo Kunene, Kunene’s widow and a managing trustee of the Mazisi Kunene Foundation, says the dynamics of the publishing industry — which forced her husband to do some of his material over in English — eventually bored him.

“[His books] iGudu likaSomcabeko, iSibusiso sikaSomhawu, iMpepho, these are like small — 20, 30, 40, 50 pages — publications where he felt like: ‘Let me just continue writing, even though there is no appetite for publishing African literature in South Africa.’

“He was just like: ‘Forget it, this isn’t for you [the literary establishment]. It’s for the heritage of the people of South Africa.’ That is why his final poems are sad, kind of, and elegiac.”

Expounding on the difficulties of keeping her husband’s legacy alive, Mathabo Kunene says there was also sometimes a level of plunder involved in how his peers handled his works. “Some took manuscripts and never brought them back. Others did unauthorised translations.”

A friend in the poet’s latter years, artist Andries Botha, describes Kunene’s artistic approach as “first flopping around as Mazisi Kunene, trying to write something, but then it would never come to him. When he wrote outside of himself it would be fierce, and he’d just write and write and write. There definitely appears to be a space where you lose yourself and then you just kind of step back. What was beautiful about Baba Kunene was that he always used to say: ‘This is not me. This is the muse. The ancestor. It writes through me. I have to wait for it to call.’ ”

Although he was partly concerned with celebrating masculinised ideas of conquest in his oeuvre, his daughter Lamakhosi remembers her father as an evolved man.

“We never had a nanny or a babysitter or anything like that and, of course, the price of exile is not having an extended family. That meant that my parents had to do more in our lives. But it didn’t feel like roles. There wasn’t anything that my dad would not do and be like: ‘That’s a woman’s role.’ He’d go to the park with us and he’d be on the bench at the park, working.”

uNodumehlezi kaMenzi will be launched during the Time of the Writer’s closing ceremony at Durban’s International Convention Centre from 5pm on March 18