Mazisi Kunene: who was the poet and anti-apartheid activist?

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Today’s (May 12, 2022) Google Doodle celebrates the life of South African poet Mazisi Kunene.

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But who is Kunene, what is he best known for and why is his life worth celebrating?

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Here’s everything you need to know about him.

Who was Mazisi Kunene?

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Mazisi Kunene was a South African poet best known for ‘Emperor Shaka the Great’, an epic poem based on Zulu oral tradition, compiled in the Zulu language and then translated into English by Kunene himself.

The poem tells the life of Shaka Zulu, a Zulu ruler who made significant contributions to the structure and military technology of the Zulu state.

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Born in Durban, South Africa, Kunene began writing poetry and short stories in Zulu as a child – by the age of 11 he was already being published in local newspapers.

As he grew older, he became a staunch supporter of preserving traditional Zulu poetic traditions and received a Bachelor of Arts in Zulu and History from the University of Natal and a Master of Arts in Zulu Poetry.

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In 1959 he transferred to the School of Oriental and African Studies to study, but Kunene’s move was not only educational, he also fled into exile after serving as head of the African United Front against South Africa’s apartheid government.

(Images: Google/Twitter)

Kunene used his art to protest the government’s discriminatory system of segregation, and when the South African government violently hit back, he fled to Britain.

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Kunene was closely associated with the African National Congress – a South African social democratic political party – and quickly rose to become its main spokesman in Europe and the United States.

What poems did he write?

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Although his work was banned in South Africa, it was during this period that Kunene wrote some of his most important works, which explored South African culture, religion and history in the context of colonialism, apartheid and slavery.

His most notable works include ‘Hymn of the Decades’ – which tells Zulu legend of how death came to mankind – and ‘The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain’, a collection of 100 poems published in 1982 with a particular emphasis on have socio-political issues.

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His most famous work is the aforementioned epic Emperor Shaka the Great, described by Christopher Larson, a writer for World Literature Today, as “a monumental undertaking and achievement in every respect”.

Kunene became Professor of African Literature at the University of California in 1975 after teaching at a number of universities as a cultural advisor for UNESCO, where he remained for almost two decades and retired in 1992.

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After his retirement he returned to South Africa to teach at the University of Natal; He was named Africa’s Poet Laureate by UNESCO in 1993 and South Africa’s first Poet Laureate in 2005.

How did he die?

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He died in Durban on August 11, 2000 after a long battle with cancer.

Kunene’s poetry carries on his legacy, as does the Mazisi Kunene Foundation Trust, dedicated to nurturing Africa’s next generation of literary talent.

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