Mazisi Raymond Kunene was born in Durban, South Africa, in 1930. He graduated from the University of Natal with a paper on traditional and modern Zulu poetry. In 1959 he obtained a grant to complete his doctoral dissertation in London. From this point on Kunene dedicated himself to the struggle for freedom of African countries. He worked for institutions such as the Afro-Asian Writers Committee and founded the South African Vocational Programme for refugees in Tanzania and Zambia. In 1966 he was officially banned from his home country along with 45 other authors. He was one of the founding members of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and became Chief Representative for the African National Congress in Europe and USA in 1962. Kunene received support from notables such as Picasso, Chagall, Giacometti, Moore and Rauschenberg when he established the South African Exhibition Appeal in 1972.
He returned to academic life in the late 1970s without interrupting his political commitment: from 1977 he was an advisor to UNESCO. He lectured worldwide, accepted a guest professorship in African Literature at Stanford and taught at University of California in Los Angeles. In 1993, after 34 years of exile, the poet returned to South Africa, where he was offered a lectureship in Zulu Literature at the University of Natal. In the same year Kunene was appointed as Poet Laureate for Arab and African countries. He died in his hometown Durban on August 11, 2006.
Kunene is one of the few African writers who did not subjugate himself to the language of the colonial powers. Nevertheless, for a long time his works, written in Zulu, were only published in English, in his own translations. As well as numerous poems, Kunene has produced a drama and two screenplays. Peter Ripken wrote of Kunene: “Even when he was just a child, his father could see the ‘imbongi’ in him; the classic bard, who recites words of praise and of criticism about those with power.” His first volume of poetry, ‘Zulu Poems’, was published in London in 1970. It clearly reveals the author’s deep attachment to his people and their cultural traditions and values. By incorporating elements from hymns, salutations and performance, the poet also stylistically resembles the specifically oral literature of the Zulus, handed down through generations. The conveying of Zulu social values and philosophies, which have likewise been passed down through generations, is a central feature of Kunene’s two great epic poems. He contributed greatly towards the indigenous historiography of black Africans in his epic poem ‘Emperor Shaka the Great’ (1970). These 17 volumes tell the story of Shaka, who governed the Zulu empire in the first half of the 19th century. Kunene was not simply concerned with presenting a more complex picture of the legendary monarch, who is distorted by clichés in the white men’s chronicles, being portrayed as a brutal, merciless, unpredictable savage. Kunene was anxious to depict his hero as a pan-African, as a conciliatory character representing the integration of the black and the white populations. In his second epic poem, ‘Anthem of the Decades’ (1981), the poet turns his attention to the Zulu version of Creation, which perceives the story of humankind as an eternal battle between conflicting factors of creation/destruction, good/evil, victory/defeat, desire/pain. Women play a special role in this view, embodying reconciliation and balance, thus life itself.
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