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August 25-31, 2006

Significance of Award


AZISI Kunene kaMdabuli, already recognised as Poet Laureate of the African and Arab world, was an author of Nobel Prize stature, richly deserving of the tribute and honour bestowed on him last year to inaugurate South Africa's National Poet Laureate Prize. We must thank the National Department of Arts and Culture, the Edcon Group, and wRite Associates for what they did. We must also thank the Kunene family, especially Mathabo his wife and the children, who have shared this wonderful man and his wandering spirit with us over the years most selflessly. Siyabulela, thina nzalo yakwaNtu! Nzalo kaZulu, kaMageba, kaMenzi, I want to call Mazisi Kunene by his African designation as imbongi yesizwe jikelele who has stepped into the shoes of AK Mqhayi, JJR Jolobe and BW Vilakazi. In future that is also what we should call the prize bestowed on Mntimande. Poet laureate has an English and European ring about it, an English and European historical and cultural context. Yet it also has its African equivalent. In its English derivation, poet laureate refers to one who is worthy of laurels (izimbali) as a poet. The poet laureate is a poet of national stature selected to write poems for State occasions, and to receive a stipend as a member of the Royal Household. Unlike Mazisi Kunene, I am more prosaic than poetic, and completely lacking in subtlety, so let me spell out what I mean unambiguously: The honour bestowed on Mazisi carries with it more than a wreath made from the foliage of bay-trees as an emblem of victory or distinction in poetry; the honour carries with it a State stipend. What I am saying here is more relevant to the National Department of Arts and Culture who have the task to identify, nurture and generally look after national cultural treasures. As Bessie Head might have said, You are our collectors of treasures. In case you think I am bringing foreign ideas to this table, in its African context, imbongi yesizwe jikelele enjoys State patronage and - wait for this - a `stipend' that provide imbongi the freedom to create, free of earthly cares and more mundane concerns. Imbongi yesizwe jikelele is the consort of kings and their equal, whose terrain is nation building and reconciliation. Imbongi yesizwe jikelele akuyona insila yenkosi! Imbongi yesizwe jikelele is no one's door mat, not even that of the most powerful in the land. Imbongi yesizwe jikelele is not a gramophone of the kind we used to call His Master's Voice. Imbongi yesizwe jikelele umqambi (creative genius). Imbongi yesizwe jikelele umlomo ongaqamb' amanga (the mouth that never fibs). More than the king's counsellors, who must watch their mouths and who sometimes behave like political weather cocks, imbongi yesizwe jikelele enjoys unfettered poetic licence. That inviolable freedom of expression makes of imbongi yesizwe jikelele the conscience of the nation; the repository of its progressive values; the narrator of its meta-narratives: imilando namabali esizwe; the philosopher-poet whose work encompasses cosmology, epistemology, metaphysics and such other philosophical constructs; the verbal artist who captures the nation's collective wisdom through coining aphorisms, proverbs and riddles; and the wordsmith whose verbal spears are sharper than the sharpest warrior's spear. Imbongi yesizwe jikelele, umkho-

Mazisi Kunene - Imbongi yesizwe

Imbongi yesizwe

UMAFRIKA August 25-31, 2006 leader, cut their political teeth in the AAM. In 1964 Mazisi Kunene also visited the US to revitalise moribund antiapartheid structures. The result was the formation of the South African Action Committee (SAAC) to mobilise Americans against apartheid and to draw South African expatriates who were members of or sympathised with the liberation movement into the fray. An issue that was of great importance to Tambo and Kunene in the 1960s was the raising of funds for MK cadres based in Tanzania. Kunene set himself what even he referred to as the `ridiculous' target of raising one million pounds (British sterling). His fund raising sorties, both orthodox and unorthodox, on behalf of the struggling masses took him to countries as diverse as Burma and the US. Literary Creation Mazisi Kunene's artistic and political peers, Alex La Guma and Keorapetse Kgositsile, characterise the symbiotic relationship between revolutionary poetry and liberation politics as follows: The poet articulates the dreams of a people for a better life, the liberation movement fights to make the dreams a reality. Although it is impossible to put a simple caption, circumscribe or contain his work in a condensed milk tin, Mazisi Kunene located himself within this tradition. It becomes pertinent, therefore, to reflect on his contribution to the unfolding culture of liberation in South Africa. My earliest encounter with Mazisi Kunene's work in the 1960's was through a short poem "Vengeance" that I read at Roma, Lesotho, where I was studying as a student-exile and where he had been a lecturer eight years earlier. This poem reads as follows: Was I wrong when I thought All shall be avenged? Was I wrong when I Thought The rope of iron Holding the neck of Young bulls Shall be avenged? Was I wrong When I thought the Orphans of sulphur Shall rise from the Ocean? Was I depraved when I thought there need not be love, There need not be forgiveness, there need not be progress, There need not be goodness on the earth, There need not be towns of skeletons, Sending messages of elephants to the moon? Was I wrong to laugh asphyxiated ecstasy When the sea rose like quicklime When the ashes on ashes were blown by the wind When the infant sword was left alone on the hill top? Was I wrong to erect monuments of blood? Was I wrong to avenge the pillage of Caesar? Was I wrong? Was I wrong? Was I wrong to ignite the earth And dance above the stars Watching Europe burn with its civilisation of fire, Watching America disintegrate with its gods of steel, Watching the persecutors of mankind turn into dust Was I wrong? Was I wrong? "Vengeance" is a moving tribute to martyrs of the liberation movement and their spirit of self-sacrifice as evinced by Vuyisile Mini, Diliza Khayingo, and Zinakile Mkaba, all recruited in 1961 to the newly established MK Eastern Cape regional command structure. They were later charged with and found guilty on 17 counts of sabotage, although the actual operations had been carried out by various units; six counts under the Suppression of Communism Act; conspiracy to murder; and one count of house breaking and theft. Vuyisile Mini had been offered commutation of his death sentence, provided he testified against National High Command member, Wilton Bri-Bri Mkwayi, but he refused. Mini, a musician, wrote the resistance song Pasopa nants' indod' emnyama, Verwoerd, and would go to the gallows singing. Despite an international campaign spearheaded by Mazisi Kunene and others, Mini, Khayingo and Mkaba were executed in Pretoria on 6 November, 1964. "Vengeance", dedicated to these men, introduced me to Kunene's work that straddles the divide between poetry and politics with remarkable and reconciling ingenuity. His `two selves' (to use Es'kia Mphahlele's descriptor), are defined by poetry and politics. I was an apprentice writer then, struggling to cultivate my own voice. After my encounter with Kunene's work, I could now locate myself within a political order to which I subscribed. I also learnt then - and that was later buttressed by La Guma and Kgositsile, among others - that it is always in the interests of the oppressor to keep poetry and politics apart because such a separation (which in reality does not exist) keeps them in their positions of unchallenged dominance. I learnt that everyone creates within their political horizons and that I, too, could create within my own political horizons. His earliest published book in English was "Zulu Poems" (1970) issued by Andre Deutsch. Heinemann published his two epics, "Emperor Shaka the Great" (1979) and "Anthem of the Decades" (1981), and a collection of shorter poems, "The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain" (1982). He had painstakingly done the translations himself from isiZulu to English. On his return home after 34 years in exile, he published, in quick succession, "Isibusiso sikamhawu" (1994), "Indida yamaNcasakazi" (1995), "Amalokotho kaNomkhubulwane" (1996), "Umzwilili wama-Afrika" (1996), and "Igudu likaSomcabeko" (1997). Kunene is celebrated most for his commitment to the language and history of his isiZulu heritage. While we all thought it was foolhardy for a man in England and in the US to keep writing in isiZulu, Mazisi Kunene did so for all the 34 years he lived in exile. He was truly possessed by some spirit medium and only his ancestors could penetrate his rhinoceros hide. He had an odd choice of weaponry, to be sure, and kept to his Zulu spears, with occasional concessions to the West, never accepting exile, as so many of us did, as a defining feature of his condition. Kunene thus taught me that, in the cultural domain, the liberation struggle is a struggle to reintegrate colonised subjects to their history, culture and heritage. It is a struggle to wrest back the tools to create and the instruments of self-definition. The liberation struggle de-alienates those on whom cultural imperialism has foisted alien ways, values, systems and foreign tongues. There is thus a correlation between the liberation struggle, holistically conceived, and cultural affirmation. Kunene taught me all this long before my encounter with Amilcar Cabral, who affirmed the same. Kunene also taught me that, in the intellectual domain, the liberation struggle is the struggle to decolonise the mind. Mazisi Kunene further shows that, whether in the service of cultural affirmation or of decolonising the mind, words are spears and that umkhonto akuyon' induku, yona egawulwa ezizweni; amadlozi akini awayibusisi imikhonto eyenziwe ezizweni! Consequently, Mazisi Kunene stuck to his Zulu spears. To him and others like him we owe the new language movement, the most potent tool people have for self-expression and for self-definition - if not for self-preservation. Let me now turn briefly to the significance of the vernacular language movement. The Language Movement All the classical examples of the European renaissance - the Italian, French, English and German - were preceded by successful reclamation of and empowerment through indigenous languages. The vernacular language movement provided in each case the diffusion model by which they could domesticate or reappropriate knowledge from other cultures to make it their own and simultaneously transmit the best thoughts to spring from the indigenes themselves. The vernacular language movement in the West first had to dislodge vestiges of cultural imperialism - whether Greek, Latin or Arabic - and await the emergence of a truly indigenous intelligentsia that became the source of empowerment to large sections of local populations. Dante (1265-1321) sparked a great revolt in Italian letters against the intellectual sterility of the medieval spirit, especially against scholasticism, in favour of intellectual freedom and a passion for the cultural magnificence and richness of the pagan world. Best known for his "Divine Comedy", which he wrote in vernacular or everyday language, at a time when other serious poets wrote in classical Latin, his work gave the Italian language new vigour and prestige and he came to be regarded as the creator of modern Italian. Geoffrey Chaucer (circum 13401400), author of "Canterbury Tales", was to the English language what Dante was to Italian. Before Chaucer, English was the language of choice among illiterate classes and was thought incapable of expressing lofty thoughts, abstract ideas, and scientific constructs. The vernacular language movement that Dante, Chaucer, etc. spearheaded in their respective countries opened the flood gates for reclamation that propelled Europe to the modern age. The example of Europe demonstrates the folly in attempting to institute momentous advances outside an inclusive and, therefore, empowering language framework. It is inconceivable how the mind of Africa can best be expressed in languages other than African languages. Further, whereas it is unthinkable that anyone can fancy oneself a Chinese or German or Russian expert without mastery of the languages these people speak, it is not unusual for a person to become a specialist on Africa without knowledge of a single African language. The African soul lies deeply lodged in African languages, and African languages are the key to unlocking African potential. Deepening democracy, launching projects to bring about mass education, instituting sustainable development programmes, decolonising African minds and institutions, intraAfrican communication - all require inclusive strategies of mass communication that African languages provide. Think for a moment how empowering the following language dispensation could become to countries of the Southern African Development Community (SADC): The Sotho languages (Setswana, Sepedi, Sesotho, Silozi, Silobedu) are spoken by sizeable populations in Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, and Zambia - by an estimated 15-million people who are firstlanguage speakers (roughly the size of the Hungarian nation). The Nguni `languages' (isiSwati, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, etc.) have a similar SADC spread - an estimated 25-million people in Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. Considered different languages rather than dialects, largely through processes of `standardisation' deriving from colonial and missionary intervention, they are more closely related than some varieties of Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, or Spanish that can sometimes be mutually unintelligible. There is little beside the absence of a strong political will preventing the adoption by bodies such as SADC of bold language policies that privilege and promote indigenous languages. SADC is in a position to pilot legislation for the use, on a rotational basis, of African languages. If speakers of other official UN languages can rely quite happily on simultaneous translation and operate just as effectively, such an African language policy for African organisations should not present problems that are any more insurmountable than those African delegates encounter in multilateral organisations. The vernacular language movement is no panacea for every social ill that afflicts Africa, but consigning African languages to the margins of social, economic and political respectability holds little promise for African recovery in spheres such as the economy, politics and education. Kunene taught me to understand the relationship between language and power; he also taught me that African languages are an African renaissance imperative. Mazisi Kunene's Influence I continue to encounter Mazisi Kunene's influence in the most unlikely situations. One of the most gratifying artistic developments of the past two decades has been the resurgence of oral forms. The other has been the emer-


THE author of this article, Professor Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamani, is a full-time writer and roving academic who has kept close to Professor Mazisi Kunene and his work for a long time

nto wesizwe! Mazisi Kunene fits the description. He was a cultural icon any nation would be proud of, fuss about and take care of, if only for posterity. Mazisi Kunene was a national cultural treasure and imbongi yesizwe jikelele whom the National Department of Arts and Culture should place permanently on its Honour's Roll. Mazisi Kunene combined the functions of poet, philosopher, politician, priest (or healer) and prophet (or visionary). His own personality, like his work, defied any facile pulling apart of these multiple functions he embodied - in particular, those that pertain to liberation politics and those that have reference to literary creation. That is the essence of this wonderful man who graced the world; whom I came to love dearly; and whom I am mightily proud to have called him my friend, brother, and mentor. Liberation Politics Kunene left Southern Africa in 1959 to study for his doctorate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. But Sharpeville and its aftermath changed all that. Called upon to help constitute the ANC's Mission in Exile, he abandoned his studies. It would be a decade-and-a-half before he could resume and complete those studies. His contribution to the liberation struggle has been downplayed. His seminal role in the formation of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, despite having to contend with sectarianism of the kind eyenz' umuntu avele azilahl' izintambo azihambele, is captured in the following remarks by Joe Matthews - who has scoured the entire spectrum of `liberation' politics and can speak as authoritatively about these organisations as anyone I know: I was in London; the chief representative was Raymond Mazisi Kunene. Then the (Eastern Cape) chaps would say, `Look here, Joe Matthews is a far senior leader to Kunene. Why should Kunene be the chief representative? He's just an unknown factor, even at home. Nobody knows Raymond Kunene. How can such a prominent leader of

HE was a cultural icon any nation would be proud of. His contribution to the liberation struggle has been downplayed

the Eastern Cape be under this chap? (Interview with Sifiso Ndlovu and Professor Bernard Magubane - 18 July 2001). It was impossible to undermine Kunene. He possessed the hide of a rhinoceros, even in argument sometimes. His deep convictions and complete disregard for parochial concerns, which he brushed aside like a rhinoceros using its tail to rid itself of fleas and flies, enabled him to stay focused on causes he espoused. Ubengenasikhathi sezimbungulu! He worked tirelessly and selflessly, through the international Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) that he helped form, to intensify the campaign for economic sanctions, especially during the Rivonia Trial. In a recent book, entitled "Road to Democracy in South Africa" (2004), Sifiso Ndlovu pays Kunene, the strategist, the following rare tribute: (Kunene) argued that the challenge was to elevate the campaign from one of protest about political prisoners to one emphasising the underlying causes of detentions and the need to fight for the ideals espoused by the Rivonia Triallists. The ANC London Committee (spearheaded by Kunene) and the AAM also designed a programme of action in relation to the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference that would demand a concrete policy on South Africa and support for UN resolutions. They compiled leaflets and wrote two pamphlets, one on Britain's history of appeasement, the other on Rivonia and its significance. Kunene was also successful in finding a publisher for Mandela's Rivonia speeches, "No Easy Walk to Freedom", edited by Ruth First. In 1962, the ANC's External Mission set up the Information Service and International Relations Department (ISIRD). The Congress Group behind the move included Mazisi Kunene, Joe Matthews, Mendi Msimang, and OR Tambo. The ANC's London office and the AAM established such a solid working relationship that by 1966, to counter apartheid propaganda, they were feeding information to the news media in Afghanistan, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, the Soviet Union and Kenya. Ndlovu provides further examples of early campaigns that Kunene as chief ANC representative in London initiated or oversaw - such as the November 1964 meeting on sanctions jointly organised by the ANC and AAM to protest, among other things, British government sale to South Africa of 16 Buccaneer aircrafts. Before the meeting there was a protest march of about 6 000 students from 40 universities. Many leaders of the British Labour Party I met as a postgraduate student in England in the 1970s, including Neil Kinnock, later to become Party

PROF Mazisi Kunene gence of the language movement, as I have described it, given impetus in the context of South Africa by the new language policy. Kunene's legacy is manifest in both. "Black Mamba Rising" (1985) heralded the resurgence of izibongo, the most cultivated form of verbal art among the Southern aBantu, within the labour movement, championed by such FOSATU (Federation of South African Trade Unions) cultural workers as Nise Malange, Mi Hlatshwayo and Temba Qabula. Thenceforth grass roots mass mobilisation took on artistic forms sprung from the people - including itoyi-toyi. Awuyen' umuntu um'ungakwazi ukugiya noma ukugida; ungumlungu. White men can't jump! Mass African audiences cannot find in European languages the aesthetic satisfaction and sensibility and the verbal gymnastics that respond fully to their exuberant "Native" spirit! Kgositsile wrote a poem about this in the 1960s that he has now forgotten called "Whistle for Pennies". AboSpokes Mashiane nabo Lemmy Special Mabaso expressing this same noisy exuberance of jiving Natives doing the kwela; bese abelungu abasithandayo basijikijelele amapeninyana! Jika rubber-neck! The elevation of izibongo to artistic and political respectability finds its highest form of contemporary expression in Zolani Mkiva, Madiba's imbongi. During Oom Ray Mhlaba's funeral in Port Elizabeth last year I watched both Mandela and Mbeki wait, like some secondfiddle violinists without instruments, as imbongi preceded each one of them in turn to the podium. It is now inconceivable to have a pub-

MINI, a musician, wrote the resistance song Pasopa nants' indod' emnyama, Verwoerd, and would go to the gallows singing

AWUYEN' umuntu um'ungakwazi ukugiya noma ukugida; ungumlungu. White men can't jump!

lic function in which imbongi does not feature. All this holds great promise for a new post-colonial order in the arts and culture. I can imagine how vindicated Mazisi Kunene must feel. Contemporary South African poetry takes on many forms - as, indeed, it should in a dispensation like ours where the creative spirit has been unchained. Two modes of poetic expression dominate: spoken-word or `dub' poetry and izibongo. To the extent that, like kwaito music, the one form is largely derivational and even imitational, owing its inspiration mainly to African-American influences (complete with dress code and body language), it cannot be more than a passing fad. To the extent that the other form is more rooted on African soil, it will nourish future generations. The reason Nguni cattle are more hardy than your Jersey or Friesland cow (even if that is understandably your cash cow) is because they are indigenous to the African environment. - Continued on Page 8



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