Mazisi Kunene

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Mazisi Kunene
Mazisi kaMdabuli Kunene

(1930-05-12)12 May 1930
Died11 August 2006(2006-08-11) (aged 76)
Durban, South Africa
NationalitySouth African
Occupationpoet, national historian, diplomat
Notable work
Emperor Shaka the Great

Mazisi (Raymond) Kunene (12 May 1930 – 11 August 2006) was a South African poet best known for his poem Emperor Shaka the Great. While in exile from South Africa's apartheid regime, Kunene was an active supporter and organizer of the anti-apartheid movement in Europe and Africa. He would later teach at UCLA and become Africa's and South Africa's poet laureate.

Early life[edit]

Kunene was born in Durban, in the modern province of KwaZulu-Natal.[1] From very early he began writing poetry and short stories in Zulu, and by age eleven he was being published in local papers.[2] He later undertook a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Natal in Zulu and history and later a Master of Arts in Zulu Poetry.[3] His Master's thesis was titled An Analytical Survey of Zulu Poetry, Both Traditional and Modern.[2] There he criticized the changing nature of Zulu literature, and its emulation of the Western tradition.[2] He won a Bantu Literary Competition in 1956 and left for London to study at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London in 1959.[3]


He opposed the apartheid government as the head of the African United Front.[3] Fleeing into exile from the country in 1959, he helped push for the anti-apartheid movement in Britain between 1959-1968.[1][3] Kunene was closely affiliated with the African National Congress, quickly becoming their main representative in Europe and the United States in 1962.[1] He would later become the director of finance for the ANC in 1972.[3] He became a Professor of African literature at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1975 after lecturing in a number of universities as a cultural advisor for UNESCO.[1] He remained at UCLA for nearly two decades, retiring in 1992.[1]

Literary works[edit]

Kunene wrote and published poetry from very early in his life. His works were written originally in Zulu and then translated into English.[3] In 1966, his works were banned by the Apartheid government of South Africa.[4] In 1970, Kunene published Zulu Poems, an anthology of poems ranging from "moral reflection to political commentary."

In Emperor Shaka the Great, published in English in 1979, Kunene tells the story of the rise of the Zulu under Shaka. World Literature Today contributor Christopher Larson described it as "a monumental undertaking and achievement by any standards." [3] This extremely nationalistic work charted the growth of the Zulu nation under Shaka, as he reforms the military and the nation and conquers many of the tribes around Zululand.

Anthem of the Decades:A Zulu Epic published in English in 1981 tells the Zulu legend of how death came to mankind. In 1982, Kunene published a second collection of poems titled The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain: Poems containing 100 of his poems.[1] This collection had a particular emphasis on socio-political topics.[3]

Unodumehlezi Kamenzi was published in 2017 on the tenth anniversary of his death. This book is the isiZulu edition of Emperor Shaka the Great and embraces Kunene's original dream to have his poem published as intended in the original isiZulu form.[5][6][7]

Late life[edit]

Kunene returned to South Africa in 1992 where he taught at the University of Natal until his retirement. UNESCO made him Africa's poet laureate in 1993 and in 2005 he became South Africa's first poet laureate.[1] He died on 11 August 2006 in Durban, after a lengthy bout of cancer.[1][8] He was survived by his wife and four children.[1]


Poetic works:[9]

  • Zulu Poems. New York, Africana Publishing Corporation, 1970
  • Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic. London, Heinemann, 1979 (transcription and translation of traditional epic)
  • 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
  • Isibusiso Sikamhawu, Via Afrika, 1994
  • Indida Yamancasakazi, 1995
  • Amalokotho Kanomkhubulwane, 1996
  • Umzwilili wama-Afrika, Kagiso, 1996
  • Igudu lika Somcabeko, Van Schaik, 1997
  • Echoes from the Mountain. New and Selected Poems by Mazisi Kunene, Malthouse Press, 2007
  • Unodumehlezi Kamenzi, 2017


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i The Associated Press, "Mazisi Kunene, 76, South African Poet Laureate", The New York Times, 22 September 2006.
  2. ^ a b c Tikkanen, Amy (2010). "Mazisi Kunene". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 24 January 2010. Italic or bold markup not allowed in: |publisher= (help)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h World Literature Today, summer 1983, cited in "Mazisi Kunene" Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2006. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2006.
  4. ^ Stewart, Jacelyn Y. (19 September 2009). "Mazisi Kunene, 76; Zulu Poet, Teacher Fought Apartheid". LA Times. Retrieved 17 February 2010.
  5. ^ Adele (24 July 2017). "Reprinted English edition of Emperor Shaka the Great published with the isiZulu edition on the 10th anniversary of Mazisi Kunene's death". UKZN Press @ Sunday Times Books LIVE. Retrieved 2 March 2018.
  6. ^ "Celebrating the Publication of "Emperor Shaka the Great" in isiZulu - Inkatha Freedom Party". Inkatha Freedom Party. 18 March 2017. Retrieved 2 March 2018.
  7. ^ Sosibo, Kwanele (16 March 2017). "Shaka epic born anew, in isiZulu". The M&G Online. Retrieved 2 March 2018.
  8. ^ "African poet professor dies at age 76", South African Broadcasting Corporation, 12 August 2006.
  9. ^ Masilela, Ntongela (1 March 2008). "South Africa — Mazisi Kunene". Poetry International Web. Retrieved 4 April 2019.