The late Professor Mazisi Kunene will be honoured as part of the University of KwaZulu Natal’s Time of the Writer festival taking place from the 13th-18th March 2017. Kunene’s iconic book, Emperor Shaka the Great, has finally been published in its native isiZulu, and is being launched as part of this year’s festival. UNodomehlezi KaMenzi, as the book is known in Zulu, was considered a very important work when it was first published in 1979, and has remained relevant for the past thirty years, with the text having been translated into a number of different languages.
Born Mazisi Raymond Fakazi Mngoni Kunene in 1930, Kunene’s talent for words was discovered at a very young age with his father declaring “The Ancestors have visited our House!” when he first discovered Mazisi’s potential. Having earned a Masters degree in Arts from the University of Natal (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal) in 1959, Kunene travelled to Britain planning to start his doctorate, but was instead drawn into liberation politics, becoming the ANC’s chief representative in the UK and Western Europe in 1964. Despite resuming his academic career a few years later, Kunene kept strong ties back home, and worked closely with prominent ANC figures such as Moses Mabhida and Oliver Tambo. In 1966, the apartheid government banned Kunene’s work, which meant that he was not able to distribute his books in South Africa, but when Emperor Shaka the Great was published, copies of the book made their way into the hands of ANC guerrillas, who took the book as a source of inspiration in their struggle against the apartheid government.
The book, which in part looks at the psychological motivations for Shaka’s actions, many of which were perceived by western historians as violent or immoral, is considered by some critics to be a promotion by Kunene of the values which African Rulers should embrace in their leadership. One critic in particular, suggests that the political events that were taking place during Kunene’s composition of the epic poem, resulted in the book acting as a model for how black South Africans could rule themselves using African values.
Kunene was a prolific author, and published dozens of works, including a Zulu version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, known as uMabatha. Kunene returned to South Africa in 1993, where he took up a post at the University of Natal, where he worked until his retirement.
Sadly Mazisi Kunene passed away on the 11th August 2006 at the age of 76, but his legacy lives on the form of the Mazisi Kunene Foundation and Museum, that was established in 2007.