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Mazisi Kunene, 76; Zulu Poet, Teacher Fought Apartheid

September 19, 2006|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Even while living in exile, thousands of miles from South Africa, Mazisi Kunene wrote poetry from home.

Epic poems that explain the cycles of creation and destruction, the wisdom of the ancestors, the genius of the Zulu emperor Shaka were rooted in Kunene's homeland but came alive again in Los Angeles, where he lived for nearly two decades.

Such work -- rich in African history, steeped in the nation's oral tradition -- had a purpose beyond its artistic value. Poetry for Kunene was a weapon in the war to liberate the nation from the brutal system of apartheid.

Late in his life, after apartheid was toppled, and the exiles had returned home, Kunene was named the first poet laureate of democratic South Africa.

Kunene, a former UCLA professor and exiled African National Congress member, who wrote many of his most acclaimed works while living in Los Angeles, died Aug. 11 at Entabeni Hospital in Durban, South Africa. He was 76.

The cause of death was believed to be cancer, said his wife, Mathabo.

"It is perhaps only now that he is dead that it will be possible for many of us to come to understand who Mazisi Kunene was, and appreciate the unique place he occupies in the context of our struggle to redefine ourselves as Africans," Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa, said in a statement read at Kunene's funeral.

A prolific poet who also wrote essays and opinion pieces, Kunene wrote major works including "Zulu Poems" (1970), "Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic" (1979) and "Anthem of the Decades" (1981).

Though a vast trove of his work remains unpublished, his collection has earned him critical acclaim. He belongs to a generation of novelists and poets that came of age during the 1950s and 1960s, as African nationalism -- and the optimism inherent in it -- was on the rise, said Ntongela Masilela, professor of English and world literature at Pitzer College in Claremont.

"Mazisi Kunene is simply the greatest African poet in the 20th century. Period," Masilela said. "He was in the forefront of liberating Africa culturally by making us go back to writing in African languages."

As a rule Kunene wrote first in Zulu. Later some of his works were translated to other languages. The decision to write in Zulu set him apart from many African writers.

"There's a psychology, a philosophy connected with the selection or even the shape of the words you use that is linked up with your experience as a person in the language," he said in Southern African Review of Books, 1993. "I did not choose to write in Zulu; I did not have to make a decision. As you say in my tradition, you are actually inhabited by the spirits on your shoulders and they tell you what to do, what to say."

Kunene's epic poems are viewed as part of a tradition dating back centuries. In the Zulu tradition, the poets, or izimbongis, spoke on behalf of the people, defining social values, celebrating what was historically significant and acting as democratic agents, Kunene wrote in the introduction to "Emperor Shaka the Great."

In his own work, Kunene spoke of the past, but made the past alive, relevant and purposeful for the times in which he lived.

"In the oral traditions of the Zulus these are not memorized stories," said Harold Scheub, professor of African languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "These are re-creations, re-creations in terms of the present. Kunene was masterful at that. This is going to be his legacy.... Yes, these poems are history, but they're much more than history."

"Emperor Shaka the Great" is the story of the Zulu people and their emperor Shaka, whose rule during the 1800s extended across much of southern Africa. Shaka, whose military machine handed the British a major defeat many years after his death at the Battle of Ishwanda, offers a view of African people that contradicted the view put forth by colonial regimes.

After its publication in 1979, the book was distributed to African National Congress guerrillas to inspire them in their drive against the apartheid regime and to create a renewed sense of self, wrote Duncan Brown in his book "To Speak of This Land."

The work begins with a call to remembrance:

After the night has covered the earth

Rouse us from the nightmare of forgetfulness

So that we may narrate their tales

You will see them, the forefathers, by the brightness of the Moon.

You will see their great processions as they enter the mountain!

Eternally their anthems emerge

How then can we be silent before the rising sun?

How wonderful! We can sing the sacred songs of our


By our ancient epics we are made beautiful.

Critics such as Charles R. Larson compared "Emperor Shaka the Great" to Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" in Contemporary Authors. But Kunene and his writings were unwelcome in his homeland.

In 1966 the government banned his poetry and that of many artists. Distance from home did not dull his passion as a writer -- or a revolutionary.

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