Mazisi Kunene was born on May 12, 1930, in Durban, a South African province now called KwaZulu-Natal.
Kunene began writing poetry in the Zulu language as a child, and by 11 years old he had had his poems published in newspapers and magazines.
Growing up, he became an advocate for preserving Zulu poetic traditions. His master’s thesis “An Analytical Survey of Zulu Poetry, Both Traditional and Modern,” criticised aspects of modern Zulu literature, including its reliance on European stylistic techniques.
Anti-apartheid activism and exile
At the start of apartheid in South Africa, Kunene resisted the government’s racist segregation system through his writing.
In 1959, the South African government reacted to the resistance movement with violence and exiled Kunene.
He moved to the UK and later the USA, where he helped start and anti-apartheid movement. Kunene’s work was banned in South Africa during this time.
Mazisi Kunene’s poetry and work
He continued to write in exile, and his work is known for exploring South African culture, religion and history, especially in the context of colonialism, apartheid and slavery.
Kunene went on to publish important works such as Emperor Shaka the Great, Anthem of the Decades and The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain.
Many of Kunene’s books are only available in the original Zulu, including Igudu lika Somcabeko and Isibusiso Sikamhawu. The poet also edited the anthologies Zulu Poems and The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain .
Kunene became a professor of African literature at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1975, and he worked here for nearly two decades. At this time, he was also a cultural advisor to UNESCO.
Kunene eventually returned to South Africa following the end of apartheid and continued writing in Zulu.
UNESCO honoured him as Africa’s poet laureate in 1993, and he later became the first poet laureate of democratic South Africa. He died in 2006.
Google Doodle says: “His legacy lives on not only in his poetry, but also the Mazisi Kunene Foundation Trust, which is dedicated to nurturing Africa’s next generation of literary talent.
“Happy birthday, Mazisi Kunene!”