Obituary: Mazisi Kunene, South African Poet Laureate, Anti-apartheid Leader, and UCLA Professor

Obituary: Mazisi Kunene, South African Poet Laureate, Anti-apartheid Leader, and UCLA Professor

The UCLA African Studies Center held a memorial service for Kunene on Oct. 12.

UCLA Today

Mazisi Raymond Fakazi Mngoni Kunene, celebrated poet, prominent anti-apartheid activist, and emeritus professor of African linguistics and literature at UCLA, died on Aug. 11 at Entabeni Hospital in Durban, South Africa, after a long illness. He was 76.

Those attending the memorial service on Aug. 19 included such dignitaries as South Africa's First Lady, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Premier of KwaZulu-Natal, and the Mayor of Durban, as well as former UCLA Professor Keorapetse "Willie" Kgositsile. In a message read at the event, South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki declared Kunene "an extraordinary South African … who combined in his being, as one integrated whole, our past, our present and our future." He was, Mbeki said, "one of those African thinkers and artists who sought to restore the dignity of the colonized and once-enslaved peoples of Africa and those of the African diaspora."

Widely regarded as one of the continent's preeminent poets and winner of multiple literary awards, including being appointed South Africa's first poet laureate in 2005 and Africa's poet laureate in 1993, Kunene drew on the oral tradition of Zulu literature to create poetry about Zulu history and thought as well as to celebrate pan-African values. He once said that "a writer … should avoid the temporary attractions of cheap popularity and make a contribution to the community that gave birth to his genius." He translated some of his work into English, including his most famous work, a translation of the great oral epic "Emperor Shaka the Great" (1979). He wrote this still widely taught text, about the powerful early 19th-century Zulu leader, while living in West Hollywood in the mid-1970s. The critic Charles R. Larson has described the 1,700-line, 17-book text as "an African epic equal to ‘The Iliad' and ‘The Odyssey' … a monumental undertaking and achievement."

The prolific poet also published "Anthem of the Decades: A Zulu Epic," about how death came into the world, as well as two poetry anthologies, "The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain" and "Zulu Poems." In the 1990s, he published several books in Zulu, including "Isibusiso sikamhawu" (1994), "Indida yamancasakazi" (1995), "Umzwilili wama-Afrika" (1996) and "Igudu likaSomcabeko" (1997). Although most of his work has been neither published nor translated, his most famous work has been translated into many languages, including English, French, German, Japanese and Dutch.

Kunene started writing in Zulu when he very young and had published a number of poems in newspapers and magazines before he was 12. He won the Bantu Literary Competition when he was 26.

Kunene obtained a teaching certificate at Maphumulo Teachers' Training College and his master's degree in 1959 from the University of Natal for a survey of Zulu poetry. He left South Africa to pursue a doctoral dissertation on Zulu literature at the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University, but instead played a leading role in bringing attention to the horrors of apartheid. He was a founding member of the anti-apartheid movement in Britain, setting up the London office of the African National Congress (ANC) with current President Mbeki. In 1962 he became the chief representative of the ANC in Europe and the United States, where he traveled and lectured widely. In 1966, his work was banned by South African government order. In 1972, he organized the historic South African Exhibition Appeal, to which Picasso, Marc Chagall, Giacometti, Henry Moore, Ben Enwonwu, Robert Rauschenberg and others donated works. President Mbeki praised this exhibition as "one of the most memorable highlights of the world struggle against apartheid, the indelible signal that the struggle for the destruction of the apartheid system was, in reality, a struggle for the elevation of the human soul."

During his more than 30 years of exile, Kunene became the head of the Department of African Studies at the National University of Lesotho and then taught African literature and the Zulu language at UCLA for 19 years, where he became a full professor. He was a spiritual and practical adviser to many students, earning him a devoted and enthusiastic following. He had an especially close association with the African Student Union. One of Kunene's former doctoral students in linguistics, Kykosa Kajangu, remembers that his "door was always open, not only to students at UCLA, but to students from every walk of life. His mind was a wisdom depot." A former doctoral student of his in literature remembers him as "brilliant, regal, even arrogant, but devoted to the intellectual welfare of the students who came to him." Others remember that he was sometimes "outrageous" but "always had a twinkle in his eye" and was "generous, deeply humane and inspiring."

Kunene only returned to South Africa in 1993, when apartheid had ended. He then lectured at several South African universities, including the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban.

Kunene was born in Durban on May 12, 1930, and grew up in Amahlongwa on the KwaZulu Natal south coast. His ancestral home, where he was laid to rest, overlooked the Indian Ocean. His father, Mdabuli Albert Kunene, was from the royal Swazi clan, and his mother, Eva Kunene, was a teacher from the large Zulu Ngcobo family. In 1973, he married Mabowe Mathabo, with whom he had four children.

Kunene is survived by his wife, Mathabo; daughter, Lamakhosi; sons Zosukuma, Ra and Rre; and his siblings, Blessing Musawenkosi and Sthandiwe Joyce Kunene.

Donations to preserve Kunene's work can be made to the Kunene Foundation, founded by Mathabo Kunene to promote her husband's work and to campaign for the inclusion of African literature in school curriculums. To contact the Kunene Foundation, e-mail Janine Zagel at or visit

Published: Wednesday, October 18, 2006