Mazisi Kunene – South Africa

Mazisi Kunene
Mazisi Kunene

OK. That was a long derailment. Back to the national poet project. Today we’re in South Africa, which instituted the institution of poet laureate in 2005, selecting poet and scholar Mazisi Kunene as its first laureate. He died this year, so presumably a new South African poet laureate will be named at some point. He was born in Durban in 1930 and studied and taught in South Africa, England and California. Kunene draws on Zulu culture and oral tradition in his writing, I read, with his main influences being the praise poem, the dirge and the war song. His seminal work is Emperor Shaka the Great: A Zulu Epic (which it seems is available on, an epic poem published in 1979. Originally written in Zulu, it chronicles “a legendary rise to power and greatness matching the feats of Napoleon and the Caesars,” according to one reviewer. Shaka Zulu was most definitely no-one to be trifled with – funny how great warriors and personalities often have difficult and humiliating beginnings (am remembering what I wrote of the Arabian poet-warrior Antara here a couple of months ago) and how the very elements that bring them to greatness also end up sowing the seeds of their undoing. A biography here says: Shaka was born circa 1787, son of a minor Zulu chief, but his mother was an unranked woman, and Shaka was a humiliated and discredited child.Shaka reorganized the Zulu into a military clan, and he soon made them into a force unchallenged in Southern African kingdoms.After 10 years of unrelenting warfare that placed incredible strains on the Zulu nation, Shaka, always psychologically unstable and obsessively worried about being replaced by an heir, finally snapped into derangement after the death of his mother in 1828. He imposed a year of celibacy on his people and executed anyone who did not show enough grief at the death of his mother. He was murdered within the year by his half-brother, Dingane, who succeeded him as ruler. He was 42.

Fascinating personality, he sounds like. There seems to have been at least one movie and one TV series about him. Some scholarly analysis of Kunene’s work, should you be interested. I couldn’t find anything but snippets of his work on the internet – sorry! This is the longest thing I found – very politically committed stuff, with some interesting imagery. No title that I could find:

By Mazisi Kunene

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?

I wonder, as an aside, at how little “committed” poetry one seems to run into in one’s mainstream internet poetry life in the West – you always have to go to Africa or Asia or the Middle East to find that in the mainstream, it seems. Or am I wrong?

Published by

Nic Sebastian

Nic is the author of Forever Will End On Thursday and Dark And Like A Web. She founded the now-archived Whale Sound site and is co-founder of The Poetry Storehouse. Nic blogs at Very Like A Whale and Voice Alpha.

5 thoughts on “Mazisi Kunene – South Africa”

  1. You’re wrong, and you’re not wrong. Committed poetry exists everywhere, but in the West, the poetry that people identify with, that people have been taught to appreciate, is non-committed. So, yes, it does exist, but one has to smoke it out and learn it, learn to understand it.

    I don’t know the title to Mr Kunene’s poem; I ended up on your blog because I wanted to publish this same piece and I was looking for a title.


  2. What a thrilling poem, especially the lines: “There need not be towns of skeletons / Sending messages of elephants to the moon?”

    Thank you for posting it here. Great blog.

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