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Mazisi Kunene (1930 - 2006)

A Brief Biography

Mazisi Raymond Fakazi Mngoni Kunene was born in 1930, in Durban and raised in Amahlongwa. He earned a teaching certificate at Maphumulo Teachers’ Training College and a Master of Arts (MA) at the University of Natal and continued his study of iSiZulu poetry at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He later earned a Doctorate of Literature from the University of KwaZulu Natal in 2000 upon his return from exile.

After leaving South Africa in 1959, he went to live in London. Together with fellow exiled writers, such as Es'kia Mphahlele, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Cosmo Pieterse and Dennis Brutus, they played a pivotal role in exposing the injustices of Apartheid. In 1962, he became the Chief Representative of the African National Congress (ANC) in Europe and the United States of America (USA). A founding member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain, Prof Kunene worked closely with ANC figures Moses Mabhida, Oliver Tambo and Robert Resha. It was during his life in exile that he published numerous works including epic poems such as Anthem of the Decades, Emperor Shaka the Great, and poetry anthologies, The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain and Zulu Poems.

  In 1966, the South African government banned his work which meant that he was then not able to publish his work in the land of his birth. In 1972, he organized the South African Exhibition Appeal, which saw a number of prominent artists supporting this initiative.

Professor Kunene had in his lifetime written more than 10 000 epics, poems, essays, short stories, nursery rhymes and Zulu proverbs and published many of them. There are still many of his works as yet unpublished such as the original iSiZulu manuscript, UNodomehlezi KaMenzi (Emperor Shaka the Great) or Inklokomo Inyimenaka (Anthem of the Decades).  Unlike many of his peers, he wrote primarily in iSiZulu and would himself translate some into English as he did with Emperor Shaka the Great (published first in 1979). Many of his books are available only in Zulu, such as Igudu lika Somcabeko (1997) and iSibusiso Sikamhawu (1994). Other work in English includes Echoes from the Mountain: New and Selected Poems (2007) and Anthem of the Decades. Prof Kunene had also edited and published anthologies in Zulu Poems (1970) and The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain (1982).

He was Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles(UCLA) where he lectured for more than 19 years, while living in the USA with his family. Kunene also taught at the National University of Lesotho and the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN). He returned to South Africa in 1993, towards the end of the Apartheid era

In 2005, he was appraised as the first South African Poet Laureate and later in 2015 was posthumously awarded the South African Traditional Music Award (SATMA) Lasting Legacy Award. Prof Kunene received many accoulades and awards during his lifetime.

Professor Kunene passed away in 2006 in Durban after an extended illness and was laid to rest in his village homestead of Amahlongwa on the South Coast of Durban.


About Mazisi Kunene, a narrative

To imagine a young boy from Amahlongwa, growing up during a time of separation and prohibition on the South Coast of Durban, far from the city and it seemed, far from the world… who could then transcend restriction and allow his imagination to give birth to profound ideas, poetry and prose; essays about whom we are as Africans; epic writings and short stories, thus amassing in his lifetime, a Collection of more than 10 000 literary works. These works he wrote almost entirely in iSiZulu and would prefer to translate these into English himself. His works have been translated into many languages such as Japanese, German, French amongst others.  

Mazisi Raymond Fakazi Mngoni Kunene grew up in a rural village, Amahlongwa in KwaZulu Natal. Visiting his village and considering the man, one wonders what had inspired him so long ago to be creative, using words that he must not have known then. Beautiful words, he introduced iSiZulu to the world in the best way he knew how. 

Mazisi once declared to his wife Mathabo of 34 years that he “could be possessed” when speaking about what we understand to be his creative genius and still be normal and that he could go through visions that convinced him that the only way is for him to subordinate “myself’s self” for the “greater mission”.  He speaks of his people’, possessively, wanting them to see themselves and their true potential in the great scheme of things, where they could see “the image of themselves in something larger than life”. One can then only contend that even as a young boy, he could see beyond his own limitations of resource and access to a much larger vision that eventually embraced the world. He believed that he must share his gifts with his village and people of Africa.

Mazisi Kunene in a later essay reminisces that he wrote poetry from the age of eight or nine. His father, who declared, “The Ancestors have visited our House!” when he discovered Mazisi’s potential as imbongi, expected him to read out to him the poetry he had written every day, in the evenings. A young boy then, who was still assigned chores as well as having to attend school, he had to find the time and commitment to write, often wondering if he was being punished by this discipline..

Potential, where it exists must be made to grow and be nurtured to enable us to find ourselves as a people and to express ourselves creatively, freely and with responsibility.

According to Mazisi in an essay on African cosmology, “a world without end is the world without beginning. It is but a state of continuous creative agitation”.

"The imposing genius of Mazisi Kunene is in forcing an acknowledgement of the solidity of our own greatness in spite of ourselves..."

Dr Ademola Araoye

"... we must retune our ears to the music of Zao and Franco of the Congo and the poetry of Mazisi Kunene.."

Thabo Mbeki

Awards and Accolades

Prof Mazisi Kunene received many awards during his lifetime. Listed below are many notable areas of recognition.

  • Certificate of Recognition
  • County of Los Angeles Commendation
  • M-Net Lifetime Achievement Award
  • UCLA Certificate of Commendation

Where to find us

8 Delville Ave, Glenwood,
Durban, South Africa

Phone: (031) 2052912