Kunene, (Raymond) Mazisi

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KUNENE, (Raymond) Mazisi

Nationality: South African. Born: Mazisi ka Mdabuli Kunene, in Durban, Natal, 12 May 1930. Education: Natal University, B.A. (honors) in Zulu and history, M.A. in Zulu Poetry; attended School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1959. Family: Married Mabowe Mathabo in 1973; four children. Career: Head of department of African Studies, University College of Roma, Lesotho; director of education for South African United Front; member of Anti-Apartheid and Boycott movement in Britain, 1959–68; chief representative, African National Congress in Europe and United States, 1962, and director of finance, 1972; visiting professor of African literature, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California; head of African Studies, University of Iowa; associate professor, then professor of African literature and languages, University of California, Los Angeles. Member, Faculty of Humanities, University of Natal, Durban. Has held positions in the Pan-African Youth movement and the Committee of African Organizations. Awards: Winner, Bantu Literary Competition, 1956. Address: Department of African Literature and Language, University of California, 405 Hilgard, Los Angeles, California 90024, U.S.A.



Zulu Poems. New York, Africana Publishing Corporation, 1970.

Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic. London, Heinemann, 1979.

Anthem of the Decades: A Zulu Epic Dedicated to the Women of Africa. London, Heinemann, 1981.

The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain: Poems. London, Heinemann, 1982.


Critical Studies: "Contemporary Samples of English-Speaking African Poetry" by Kofi Awoonor, in The Breast of the Earth: A Survey of the History, Culture, and Literature of Africa South of the Sahara, New York, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1975; "Past, Present, and Future in African Poetry" by Ken Goodwin, in SPAN (Murdoch, Australia), 13, October 1981; "Effects of Exile" by Anthony Delius, in The Times Literary Supplement (London), 4128, 14 May 1982; "Mazisi Kunene" by K.L. Goodwin, in Understanding African Poetry: A Study of Ten Poets, London, Heinemann, 1982; "Poetry" by Ursula A. Barnett, in A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1940–1980), Amherst, University of Massachusetts Press, 1983; "Vernacular Poetry" by Jacques Alvarez-Pereyre, in The Poetry of Commitment in South Africa, London, Heinemann, 1984; "Poetry, Humanism and Apartheid: A Study of Mazisi Kunene's Zulu Poems" by Chidi Maduka, in Griot: Official Journal of the Southern Conference on Afro-American Studies (Berea, Kentucky), 4(1–2), Winter/Summer 1985; "Kunene's Shaka and the Idea of the Poet As Teacher" by John Haynes, in Ariel: A Review of International English Literature (Calgary, Alberta), 18(1), January 1987; "Super-Shaka: Mazisi Kunene's Emperor Shaka the Great" by Z. Mbongeni Malaba, in Research in African Literatures (Columbus), 19(4), Winter 1988; "Patterns of Oral Poetic Trends in West and South African Poetry: Atukwei Okai and Mazisi Kunene" by Ohaeto Ezenwa, in The Literary Griot: International Journal of Black Oral and Literary Studies (Wayne, New Jersey), 8(1), Spring 1989; "'Sacred Geography' in Poems by Mazisi Kunene," in Literature, Nature and the Land: Collected AUETSA Papers, edited by Nigel Bell and Meg Cowper-Lewis, Kwa-Dlangezwa, Natal, University of Zululand, 1993; "The Writer As Philosopher: Interview with Mazisi Kunene" by Vasu Reddy, in South African Journal of African Languages, 16(4), November 1996.

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Noteworthy features of Mazisi Kunene's poetry are that all his published work is composed in Zulu and translated into English by the author and that everything he writes is centered in the traditional beliefs, practices, and conventions of the Zulu people. An authority on Nguni literature, he is well equipped to convey to English readers the qualities of what is essentially an oral literature, with its rich cultural heritage and strong national pride. Consequently, his epic poetry is performance oriented and rhetorical, with a powerful narrative impetus. In an introduction to each volume Kunene explains to the reader relevant aspects of Zulu thought and literary conventions, such as the place of the individual in relation to ancestors and the function of the praise poem. At the same time he makes clear his rejection of Eurocentric models in favor of an African worldview.

Kunene's first volume, Zulu Poems (1970), reflects a wide variety of experiences and subject matter, ranging from love to war and from moral reflection to political commentary. It is given a sense of unity by a Blakean simplicity of vision expressed in African imagery. The following lines are from "Mother Earth, or the Folly of National Boundaries":

   Why should those at the end of the earth
   Not drink from the same calabash
   And build their homes in the valley of the earth
   And together grow with our children?

Emperor Shaka the Great (1979) is a monumental epic of some seventeen thousand lines. It has been attacked for its seemingly uncritical portrayal of Shaka, but a careful reading shows that Kunene is less concerned with the glorification of the Zulu monarch than with the extent to which he represents and gives expression to the communal values, history, and philosophical vision of the Zulu people. Shaka's destruction results from his flouting of traditions rooted in the natural forces governing earth and man.

Kunene's next major work, Anthem of the Decades (1981), which is dedicated to the "women of Africa," real and legendary, celebrates the complementary cycles of creation and destruction and of conflict and reconciliation that govern human history as reflected in the oral heritage of the African people. Made up of fifteen cycles, Anthem tends to lapse into didactic rhetoric, though there are passages of lyrical intensity.

Kunene's second collection of poems, The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain (1982), achieves a resonance and sureness of touch absent from its predecessor. Sociopolitical concerns ("Police Raid," "Death of the Miners," "The Rise of the Angry Generation") are integrated into an overarching vision or dream of peace, of communal life lived in unity with the earth and in the light of ancestral wisdom. The imagery is elemental, striking, and free from cliché:

   You are born of the mist and the dream.
   Do not move, do not disturb the eternal cycles
   But weave into them the sacred knots of the rainbow
   And the generations that are to come must sing.

—Ernest Pereira