Mazisi Kunene, the first poet laureate of a democratic South Africa whose works recorded the history of the Zulu nation, has died at age 76.
Kunene also played a leading role in the anti-apartheid movement while in exile. It was during his time outside South Africa that he published poems such as “Emperor Shaka the Great”, “Anthem of the Decades” and two anthologies, “The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain” and “Zulu Poems.”
A memorial service will be held for Kunene on Oct. 12 at UCLA, where he taught African literature for nearly two decades. Kunene died Aug. 11 in a hospital in Durban after a long battle with cancer, his family said.
“It is perhaps only now that he is dead, that it will be possible for many of us to come to understand who Mazisi Kunene was, and appreciate the unique place he occupies in the context of our struggle to redefine ourselves as Africans,” President Thabo Mbeki said in a speech read at a memorial service in Durban.
Kunene was born and educated in KwaZulu-Natal. He used his writing to oppose the apartheid government. In 1959, with the liberation movement under severe threat, he went into exile and played a pivotal role in the founding of the anti-apartheid movement in Britain.
A few years later, Kunene became the chief representative in Europe and Africa for the African National Congress, which would become the ruling party in South Africa with the fall of apartheid. Kunene was said to have persuaded artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall and Henry Moore to donate works for an exhibition to raise funds for the ANC.
A cultural adviser to UNESCO, he taught at a number of universities. In 1975, he joined UCLA, where there was a strong African language department, remaining there until retirement in 1992.
On his return to South Africa in 1993, he began publishing in his native Zulu language. That year UNESCO honored him as Africa’s poet laureate, and in 2005 he was made South Africa’s poet laureate.
He is survived by his wife, Mathabo, daughter Lamakhosi and sons Zosukuma, Ra and Rre.