One of our greatest poets is disappearing

2013-10-28 00:00

ONE of the consequences of moving to Durban is that I find myself living in a road named after someone I once interviewed — the poet, Mazisi Kunene.

Kunene died in 2006, 10 years after I interviewed him in October 1996. The published interview was headlined “An ancestor still with us”, a play on the title of his book, The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, and his status as an elder of South African letters.

We met in his office at the Durban campus of the then University of Natal, where Kunene had been a professor in the Zulu department since returning to South Africa from exile in 1993.

Born in 1930, Kunene began writing as a young boy — “I didn’t know it was poetry,” he told me. “I was just writing, then somebody said ‘did you write this? This is poetry’.” By the age of 10, Kunene was submitting poems to newspapers and magazines.

After matriculating, Kunene studied and later lectured at the University of Natal, subsequently becoming head of the department of African Studies at the University College of Lesotho. A member of the ANC, in 1959 Kunene won a scholarship to go to London University but he was not destined to complete his overseas studies. In the early sixties, as the ANC moved from a campaign of boycott to one of armed struggle, he was called on to play a more active role. With the blessing of his mentor, anti-apartheid campaigner Canon John Collins, Kunene left London University to work for the ANC. In 1962, he became the chief representative of the ANC in Europe and the U.S. and, in 1972, director of finance.

Surprisingly, Kunene decided to relinquish his high-profile work to concentrate on his writing. “I began to wonder if our strategy was correct ... when things don’t happen you think ‘what is wrong? What is lacking?’ I felt we needed regeneration through writing.”

As a resistance movement, the ANC had not generated much literature, in comparison to similar movements in Central America or southeast Asia. “There was a gap. So I asked for permission to go and write books, to regenerate in us a sense of action.”

And so Kunene returned to academic life, teaching literature at Stanford and UCLA in the United States.

Kunene had long been writing and publishing in Zulu; his collection of poems, Idlozi Elingenantethelelo, won an award in the Bantu Literary Competition of 1956, but he found a wider, international audience when his work appeared in English translation under the title Zulu Poems.

In 1979, Kunene published what is generally considered his masterpiece, Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic, a poem of some 17 000 lines dealing with the rise of the Zulu empire. “I came to the conclusion that it was very important for us, the people fighting against apartheid, to re-establish a sense, not just of heroism, but of a sense of fearlessness in the face of death: the celebration is in dying for something, not in just living. To achieve this it was necessary to refer to a people in the past who had died without a fear of death and who had died because they wanted to achieve something.”

Kunene studied epics produced by other cultures. “I was interested in their approach to mythification — not for its own sake, but to project meaning. The myth is not true in itself, but it is a symbol. When you are young you enjoy the story. When you are older you look deeper into the meaning of the myth.”

Emperor Shaka the Great was followed by other books, including Anthem of the Decades, an epic dedicated to the women of Africa, and the poetry collection The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain.

“One of Africa’s greatest poets”, was how the London Guardian described Kunene when he died in 2006. So how come he’s out of print? Go into any bookshop; there are none of his titles on the shelves. Not even Emperor Shaka the Great. With KwaZulu-Natal currently counting down to 2016, when the Zulu nation will celebrate its formation 200 years ago by King Shaka kaSenzangakhona, surely the time has come for a reprint? Otherwise, one of South Africa’s most distinguished sons is in danger of becoming just a road sign.

• stephen.coan@witness.co.za

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