Mazisi Kunene: Google honors South African poet on his 92nd birthday

Happy Birthday, Mazisi Kunene!

Google doodle celebrates the 92nd birthday of the South African poet Mazisi (Raymond) Kunene. He is best known for his poem “Emperor Shaka the Great.” He is also an active supporter and organizer of the anti-apartheid movement in Europe and Africa, whose work recorded the history of the Zulu people.

Mazisi Kunene was born and raised in Durban, an eastern South African province now called KwaZulu-Natal. As a child, he loved writing short stories and poetry in Zulu. By age 11, he was publishing his writings in local newspapers and magazines. As he grew older, he became a strong advocate for the preservation of indigenous Zulu poetic traditions.

Mazisi Kunene went on to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Natal in Zulu, and later a Master of Arts in Zulu Poetry. His master’s thesis notably criticized how Western literary traditions were diluting Zulu literature. His Master’s thesis was titled “An Analytical Survey of Zulu Poetry, Both Traditional and Modern.”

At the start of apartheid, Mazisi Kunene used his works to resist the government’s racist segregation system. When the South African government reacted with violence toward the resistance movement in 1959 and exiled Kunene, he fled to the UK (and later the USA), where he helped start the anti-apartheid movement. During this time, his work was banned in South Africa.

In exile, Mazisi Kunene went on to publish monumental works of literature such as “Emperor Shaka the Great,” “Anthem of the Decades” and “The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain.” His work by him is known for exploring South African culture, religion and history in the context of colonialism, apartheid and slavery.

In “Emperor Shaka the Great,” published in English in 1979, Kunene tells the story of the rise of the Zulu people under Shaka. “Anthem of the Decades: A Zulu Epic” published in English in 1981 tells the Zulu legend of how death came to mankind. In 1982, Kunene published a second collection of poems titled “The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain: Poems” containing 100 of his poems by him.

World Literature Today contributor Christopher Larson described it as “a monumental undertaking and achievement by any standards.”

In 1975, Kunene became an African literature professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he taught for nearly two decades. He also served as a cultural advisor to UNESCO during this time.

Post-apartheid, Kunene returned to South Africa to continue writing in Zulu. In 1993, UNESCO honored him as Africa’s poet laureate. He later also became the first poet laureate of democratic South Africa. His legacy of him lives on not only in his poetry but also in the Mazisi Kunene Foundation Trust, which is dedicated to nurturing Africa’s next generation of literary talent.

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