This past weekend saw the Durban Book Fair come to life at Mitchell Park. Durban is a “UNESCO world city of literature” and the book launches and talks at the fair certainly did not disappoint. The headline event of the fair was a tribute to the late, Durban-born-and-based literary icon and South African and African poet laureate, Mazisi Kunene. Zandile Qono-Reddy, chairperson of the book fair, said of the poet and his work:
“Professor Kunene is a literary icon of our continent. It is fitting that we should host this honour on his 90th birth anniversary in the city of his birth.”
Kunene is perhaps best known for his three epic poems, one of which was about King Shaka, entitled “Emperor Shaka the Great.” The poem follows Zulu oral history traditions and documents the king’s life, military successes and the structure of the state during his rule. Other pivotal works included his local take on Macbeth entitled UMabatha and Anthem of Decades: A Zulu Epic.
Despite gaining global notoriety, Kunene’s literary career had humble beginnings. As a child, he revelled in writing poetry and short stories, and by the age of 11, he was being published in local newspapers. This love for the written word and Zulu history lasted throughout his lifetime. He went on to complete his Bachelor of Arts and Master’s degrees at the University of Natal, with a Master’s thesis entitled, “An Analytical Survey of Zulu Poetry, Both Traditional and Modern“. In the mid-1950’s he was accepted to study at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He was denied a passport by the apartheid state, he left the country on an exit permit.
A True Literary Icon and Struggle Hero
Although he planned to obtain his doctoral degree in London, Kunene was soon drawn into politics and eventually became the chief representative of the ANC in the United Kingdom and Western Europe. His work soon led him to America in the late 1960s and in 1973 he began teaching at the University of California. Here he held a prestigious post as professor of African Languages and Literature and taught at the institution for 19 years until he returned to South Africa in 1992. During his exile, he worked closely with leading liberation heroes such as Oliver Tambo. He was also involved in a number of endeavours that sought to raise funds for the ANC, including his launch of the South African Exhibition Appeal in 1972 where famous artists such as Picasso and Henry Moore donated works. Reflecting on the exhibition and its historical significance, President Mbeki shared:
“[It was] 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.”
Kunene eventually returned to Durban and taught at the University of Natal until he retired. In 1993 UNESCO made him the poet laureate for Africa – a true testament to his pan-African ethos – and in 2005 he was named South Africa’s first-ever poet laureate. He passed away in 2006 but his literary brilliance, ability to put African literature on the global stage, and his fight against the apartheid system have ensured that his legacy remains. The Mazisi Kunene Foundation is one such place where his legacy continues.