That Mazisi Kunene is a great poet is today in the year 2000 for many South Africans a matter beyond dispute. His achievement is so towering and monumental that one can postulate that he is arguably the greatest poet Africa has produced in the twentieth-century. His two epics, Emperor Shaka The Great (1979) and Anthem of the Decades (1981), have no parallels in African literary history of the past century. When his as yet unpublished epics (7 and still counting) in the Zulu language eventually see the light of day, this high estimation of his aschievement will seem commonsensically self-evident. The question of Mazisi Kunene in South African literary history inevitably brings to the forefront the fact that the best poets in our country in the past century have written in the African languages: S. E. K. Mqhayi and J. J. J. Jolobe in the Xhosa language, Benedict Wallet Bambatha Vilakazi and Mazisi Kunene himself in the Zulu language. Despite this incontrovertible fact, it would seem today tragically enough that in the consciousness of many South Africans it is the poetry written by Africans in the English language that is better known. In a not few instances, Mazisi Kunene has viewed literature written in the European languages in Africa (that is in German, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, etc.), particularly in South Africa, as a 'literature of occupation'. This is a complicated and complex matter that will be broached elsewhere in a consideration of Kunene's poetics. It remains to indicate that Mazisi Kunene's stance in relation to the literature in the European languages in Africa is similar in logic to the intellectual and cultural criticism levelled by Benedict Vilakazi at H. I. E. Dhlomo in the famous aesthetic duel between them in the 1930s: "By Bantu drama, I mean a drama written by a Bantu, for the Bantu, in a Basntu language. I do not class English or Afrikaans dramas on Bantu themes, whether these are written by Black people, I do not call them contributions to Bantu Literature.It is the same with poetry. For instance, a very excellent book, like Darlow's African Heroes does not come within my category of Bantu poetry. It is a great book of poetry on Bantu themes; for that matter English and Afrikaans books with Bantu setting, written by all our White friends are not Bantu literature. I have an unshaken belief in the possibilities of Bantu languages and their literature, orivided the Bantu writers themselves can learn to love their languages and use them as vehicles for thought, feeling and will. After all, the belief, resulting in literature, is a demonstration of people's 'self' where they cry: 'Ego sum quod sum' [I am what I am]. That is our pride in being black, and we cannot change creation" (B. W. Vilakazi, "African Drama and Poetry", The South African Outlook, July 1st, 1939, emphasis in the original). In an interview with Zoe Wicomb in 1993, on the occasion of his return to South Africa after a 34-year exile period, Mazisi Kunene expressed a similar thought to that of Benedict Vilakazi: "I think it's logical, normal to write in your mother tongue because there's a psychology, a philosophy connected with the selection or even the shape of the words you use that is linked up with your experience as a person in the language, in the milieu in which you speak, in which you communicate, in which you challenge others. A language has certain nuances that are complex and secretive and these nuances are crucial because in making a creative work you cannot merely make a statement. . . So the effort of creating requires that writers should not separate themselves, should not make a choice even as to what language to use. I did not choose to write in Zulu; I did not have to make a decision. As you say in my tradition, you are actually inhabited by the spirits on your shoulders and they tell you what to do, what to say" ("Writers at Work: Mazisi Kunene", Southern African Review of Books, September/October 1993). The similarity of views between these two great poets across 50 years is not accidental, not only because they belong to a common cultural and poetic tradition stretching Magolwane (Shaka' great Court poet), but because also Mazisi Kunene was in his earlier days a protégé of Benedict Vilakazi. In several instances Kunene has alluded to this lineage. In his magisterial M. A. thesis, An Analytical Survey of Zulu Poetry: Both Traditional and Modern, submitted to the University of Natal in 1958, the young Mazisi Kunene both praises and criticizes his predecessor in very unsually strong terms: "The first volume of Vilikazi [Inkondlo ka Zulu] has a lot that is immature. The poet has no full confidence in himself as a writer of Zulu poetry. He still relies for his inspiration on the works of the 18th Century Romantic poets. In those poems in which the inspiration is original the poet shows great ability. Besides, the poems mentioned there are others that are of original inspiration, like 'Thongo Lokwazi', 'Khalani Mazulu', and 'Mangificwa yakufa', which show great poetic merit. The first one is an acknowledgement of Vilakazi's indebtedness to H. I. E. Dhlomo, the second is an elegy on the death of Solomon ka Dinizulu. . . This [Amal'Ezulu] is the second volume of Vilakazi's poetry. In this volume the poet emerges a successful master of his art. He has realised the value of original inspiration. He almost successfully fuses the Zulu and English poetic idioms. Much as he mourns for the past he has realised that the past is not very important unless it has principles or ideas of present application. Such poems as 'Ugqozi' show successfully Vilakazi has done this. He is not so much concerned with the memories of the past as with the reflections on the past or ideas arising from such meditations. . . Vilakazi is at his best when he writes short lyrical pieces, especially if combined with Zulu history. In the long poem he still does not realise that a long poem must be based on a story around which a philosophy might be woven. His long poems as a result are weak and incoherent. They tend to be didactic and dull, because the poet has not rid himself of the habit of observing his own feelings. He is sometimes too concerned with the desire to push in his personality to be effective in a narration. This concern with the self blurs his view of life" (An Analytical Survey of Zulu Poetry, pp. 212-214). Although Mazisi Kunene was to considerably modify his views of Benedict Vilakazi approximately two decades later on, it is astonishing to note how these reflections of 1958 coincided with those expressed by H. I. E. Dhlomo in a 1952 critical intellectual biography of Benedict Vilakazi: "This [his supposed intellectualism and cultural distance from the real concern of the people which subsequently abated], they maintain, could be verified by his progress in poetry. In his first book, Inkondlo, he is an ivory-tower artist, locked in himself, weaving beautiful phantasies, and blind and deaf to his surroundings and the cruel fate of his people. In his second work, Amal' Ezulu, he identifies himself with the struggles, fears, aspirations, sacrifices and the unconquerability of his people. Some critics say that this proves, among other things, that Vilakazi did not in fact know the depth of pain, want, humiliation and frustration in his personal life. He only awakened to these not by means of personal experience, but objectively through the evolution of his artistic and patriotic instinct---his genius. . . Vilakazi had three main ambitions. First, to make his times the Vilakazi age in Bantu literature; second, to be one of the leading scholars and greatest men; third, to wrench from European experts certain academic fields in which he would be recognized as a leading authority. There is no doubt that when he died he was already the most outstanding figure in Bantu literature as original writer, critic and research scholar. Academically, he had outpaced many who had an advantage of many years'start before him. But it is doubtful if the present will be called his age for time was against him, but in favour of his equally determined rivals. True genius and the highest quality only can defy time, nas in the cases of names like Keats, Shelley, Schubert and others" ("Dr. Vilakazi", Masterpiece in Bronze, Drum, July 1952). This brilliant understanding of the ambitions of Vilakazi by Dhlomo gives us a historical perspective from which to situate the ambition of Mazisi Kunene: combining all these three ambitions of Vilakazi, Mazisi Kunene has sought to make the cultural history of South Africa in the twentieth-century as the Age of Mazisi Kunene. Those who have a deep knowledge of his astonishing creativity would very much hesitate to dismiss this unexampled ambition as preposterous. One of the principal objectives that Mazisi Kunene appropriates from Benedict Vilakazi is to make certain that African poetic and cultural expressions in the African languages, originating in Izibongo poetic traditions, negotiate and survive the dialectical unity and divide of tradition and modernity. Despite its negative evaluation of Benedict Vilakazi, the undeniable importance of An Analytical Survey of Zulu Poetry is its situating of him as a modernistic representation of a poetic tradition that is traceable from the seventeenth-century. It is perhaps from the recognition of the monumentality of the legacy Benedict Vilakazi was grappling with that lead Mazisi Kunene in later years to everhaul his earlier estimations of his great predecessor. The revelation of recognition seems to have crystalized in the imagination of Mazisi Kunene in the essay of historical retrieval of 1967 on Magolwane: "Magolwane is one of the greatest of African poets, indeed I would say one of the greatest world poets. He lived in the early 19th Century and was the national poet at the peak of Zulu power. His poetry can best be understood within an appreciation of the historical background which nurtured his immense genius. Prior to the accession of Shaka to the Zulu throne, the dominant power was that of the Mthethwas who had established an empire through skillfully arranged defensive alliances. . . The greatness of Magolwane clearly emerges against the background of these compositions. He revolutionised the whole poetic idiom. . . The conflicts between individuals were depicted as conflicts of character and national interests so that the individuals in his greatest epic poem became symbolic of greater issues involving the destiny of nations and peoples. In this sense , his poetry depicts two levels of meaning. One the one hand we are given meaning of reality as it impresses itself on our senses. History itself is in this sense descriptive of events, but these events must have their validity and must have an aesthetic meaning of their own. The description must be so constructedthat it conveys a well ordered reality. This is one level of meaning. On the second the same events became symbolic of human drama and life. This symbolism is not accidental, the poet consciously gives hints and suggestions as to the interconnection between the first level of meaning-descriptive and the second-philosophical. It is for that very reason that Magolwane is not contented with giving description in the first few lines of his stanzas, but always, as has been indicated, draws a philosophical conclusion. This conclusion must have a direct relationship with the first introductory description and must at the same time be a lead on to the next stanza. In this sense Magolwane's poetry impresses itself in waves of meaning. The meaning which is not only assumed in woeds but also in the structure and form of the poetry" ("Portrait of Magolwane-The Great Zulu Poet", Cultural Events in Africa [Cambridge University], July 1967). In this extraordinary practice of literary criticism and historical retrieval, Mazisi Kunene was in effect articulating his own historical project of poetic form---the creation of epics that in their poetic form are a synthesis of philosophical exposition or disquisition and historical reconstruction---the essence of his poetics would be the organic marriage of philosophy and history. Indeed, all of Mazisi Kunene poetic creativity, be it epics, or dramatic poetry or lyrical poetry, are a consummate realization of this synthesis. From this critical year of 1967 onwards, signaled by this short essay which in actual fact is a manifesto, all of Mazisi Kunene's major essays on African literature are a postulation in one form or another of the view that the African creative act in literature is a search for the harmonious unity of philosophy and history inside poetic form. One instance should suffice. In one of his most powerful essays, written a year before ending his 34-year exile in 1993, Mazisi Kunene observed: "Unfortunately, the study and analysis of African philosophy remains in its infancy, not because there is a lack of competent scholars, but because African philosophy is lived rather than academized or practiced by the privileged members of an exclusive elite. To express public and communal meaningfulness, this philosophy has developed numerous strategies for making its tenets accessible to the people. . . In conclusion, we can only say that, until the full meaning of African philosophy and cosmology is understood in its own right, confusion will persist and such inane questions as 'should African literature be written in African languages?' will continue to be seriously asked" ("Problems in African Literature", Research in African Literatures, vol. 23 no. 1, Spring 1992). In his thorough-going engagement with Magolwane, Mazisi Kunene came to a historical recognition that, belonging to the tradition of Izibongo poetic expression, Benedict Vilakazi was not only struggling with this poetic form to make it meaningful in modernity, but also that it must continue to be a discourse on history and philosophy. From this re-positioning of Benedict Vilakazi, Mazisi Kunene initiates a trans-valuation of his poetic practice. In the Introduction to his Zulu Poems, Mazisi Kunene notes: "Modern poets like Vilakazi, Mthembu, Made, S. Dlamini, A. Kunene, when first attempting to put in writing what had been an oral tradition, faced immeasurable problems. . . As the Zulu literary tradition had been devalued, I started writing without models, until I discovered Vilakazi's poetry. When I became dissatisfied with Vilakazi and others, I started my own metrical experiments based on the recurrence of stress in the penultimate syllable. Finding this unsatifactory, I then experimented with syllabic metre, but eventually discarded all these experiments in preferance for an internal rhythm which I found in studying traditional poetry. This is the method I have found most appropriate to Zulu poetry" (African Publishing Corporation, New York, 1970). This ambivalence of Mazisi Kunene towards Benedict Vilakazi across a quarter of a century is a deep expression of what he learned from H. I. E. Dhlomo's intellectual interlocutor: the transformation of traditional poetry into a modernistic form of expression.
(A Keynote Address given on Sunday, July 25 1993, at the Mazisi Kunene farewell luncheon and cultural presentations organized by the various Departments and Centers of the University of California in Los Angeles.)
[Subsequently published in Ufahamu: Journal of the African Activist
Association, vol. XXI no. III, Fall 1993].
THE RETURN OF MAZISI KUNENE TO SOUTH AFRICA:
Mazisi, let me begin by expressing my profound gratitude and deep honour
in being selected by you to be the keynote speaker on such a great occasion,
your return home to South Africa tomorrow, July 26 1993, a date which
will go down in South African cultural history, note I say cultural
history not political history, as having signaled the closing of the
Exile Moment in our history. The closing of the political history of
the Exile Moment in South African history is a complicated issue and
complex process, which one can genuinely doubt whether it will ever
be closable. That chapter, of our political history in exile, will be
closed, if at all, by the development of genuine democracy in a New
South Africa and by the unity of the African people, beyond the political
divisions which are traumatizing all of us South Africans. I think the
return of Ezekiel Mphahlele home in 1977, which caused so much consternation
among many of our compatriots, after a self-imposed exile of twenty
years, was an act which sought to indicate that fascism and apartheid
in those hard times were going to be defeated much sooner than many
of us thought possible. Your return tomorrow, after a forced political
and cultural exile of thirty-four years, is an act which expresses the
fact that apartheid has been defeated, though unfortunately as yet not
dead, and as yet not unconditionally. Until its unconditional defeat,
it is possible that apartheid could re-emerge or continue in a different
form. Please Mazisi note the distinction I'm making between the self-imposed
exile of Ezekiel Mphahlele and the forced political exile on your part,
despite the fact that you left South Africa voluntary in 1959 to pursue
doctoral studies at the London School of Oriental Studies.
I think the causative factors of one's exile have had an enormous impact on the qualitative experiencing of the Exile Moment for each of us. All of us South Africans have experienced Exile differently, politically and culturally. In the decade I was living in Europe (in Poland and in West Germany), you came in 1987 to live in West Berlin for four months through a West German Foundation sponsorship. This gave us an occasion to renew our intellectual friendship, after not being able to see each other for approximately eight years. During our daily strolls in the streets of West Berlin for approximately three months we talked a lot about the historical meaning of our Exile Experience, among many other things. Then we did not when or how our Exile Experience would end, but your return home tomorrow will in effect be putting that chapter in our cultural and intellectual history to a glorious end.
If at the beginning of this presentation I'm coupling your name together with that of Ezekiel Mphahlele, it is because his departure to Nigeria in 1957 was the opening line of this peculiar chapter in our cultural history. Your exile in 1959 was the beginning of a deluge that broke in 1960 following the Sharpeville Massacre. Thereafter Lewis Nkosi, the late Bloke Modisane, Dennis Brutus, Alex La Guma and many others followed. Brilliant political leaders like Robert Resha, Duma Nokwe, Moses Mabhida, who are no longer with us, also took the high road of Exile. You became in 1962 the Chief Representative for the African National Congress in Europe and America, and became its Director of Finance in 1972. This was the beginning of a relationship fraught with many complications, complications which have continued up to the present. An objective and scholarly appraisal of the political complications of our Exile Experience will take place many decades later in the twenty-first century, when many if not all of the major figures like yourself would have by then disappeared from the scene. This is the reason I will not directly touch on political matters in this presentation. What I would like to indicate here, because of your greatness as a poet, one of the two or three great African poets alive today, is why your return to South Africa tomorrow is the last line of this peculiar chapter opened by Mphahlele in 1957.
Where does one begin in evaluating the prodigious dimensions of a colossus like Mazisi Kunene. Does one begin with the two great Zulu poets of the eighteenth century, Magolwane and Mshongweni, and end with the dazzling figure of Aime Cesaire in the late twentieth-century! Or does one begin with Nadine Gordimer passing through Leopold Sedar Senghor and ending with Ngugi wa Thiong'o! What this indicates is that the cultural space historically occupied by Mazisi Kunene is enormous and complex. Your two published epics, Anthem of the Decades and Emperor Shaka the Great and the two anthologies, The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain and Zulu Poems, are an enormous edifice. Your as yet unpublished epics and anthologies are quite extensive. When all your works are eventually published in a democratic New South Africa, they will configure a new structure of our literary history.
I think the significance of your literary production is fully understandable when situated within the cultural coordinates of African literary and cultural history. In the 1950s when you started seriously writing two events of epoch making proportions were taking place in Africa: the emergence of African nationalism in the struggle against colonialism and imperialism; and the appearance of modern African national literatures in the European languages. Both of these phenomena were part of the process of modernization, the experiencing of modernity and the forging of modernism. In many ways both African nationalism, which was characterized not by singularity but by pluralism, and modern African national literatures in the European languages, were an attempt to establish the lines of continuity with our past which European colonialism and imperialism had broken. When one talks about African nationalism one recalls figures like Mnandi Azikiwe in Nigeria, Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Modibo Keita in Mali, Kenneth Kaunda in Zambia and many others. Three other forms of nationalism were of a qualitatively distinct nature: the African nationalism of Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana which was affiliated and aligned with the Pan-Africanism of George Padmore, W.E.B. DuBois and C.L.R. James among others; the African nationalism of Julius Nyerere in Tanzania which was in the process of constructing African socialism; and the African nationalism of Sekou Toure in Guinea which was allied with various forms of European socialist thought. Parallel with the emergence of African nationalism was the emergence of Arab nationalism in Africa, exemplified, for example, by figures as different from each other as Abdul Nasser in Egypt, Ben Bella in Algeria and many others. The figures of modern African national literatures in the European languages are too many to name them all: from David Diop in Senegal through Kofi Awoonor in Ghana and Flora Nwapa in Gambia to Neruddin Farrah in Somalia and Agostinho Neto in Angola. All of these writers were writing African literature in the European languages.
Your work Mazisi stood and stands against this tendency in African literary history, in that from the beginning it was written in an African language, namely in Zulu. This characteristic of your work Mazisi was profoundly unique, and this imprints one of its singular distinctions. If I do not mention Fagunwa in Nigeria who wrote in Yoruba, it is because he belongs to an earlier generation than yours and his writings are not informed by a similar historical problematic as yours. In many ways, the historical problematic of your work is similar to that that informs modern African national literatures in the European languages, even if the responses are totally different from each other. The obvious question here Mazisi is: what is it that enabled you to hold the line of continuity by writing in an African language when most of the major African writers felt compelled to write in the European languages. I think what enabled Ngugi wa Thiong'o to bolt from the line of modern African writers writing in European languages to rejoin you practically alone in the line of modern African writers writing in the African languages was his discovery of, and encounter with, the African Marxism of Frantz Fanon and Amilcar Cabral. African Marxism was the third historical force to have emerged in African intellectual history of the 1950s, 1960s and the early 1970s. It is the African Marxism of Frantz Fanon that enabled Ngugi wa Thiong'o to see the untenability of the position that African literatures could ever be written in the European languages. Whereas the other African writers have taken for granted as to What is African Literature? Ngugi wa Thiong'o has repeatedly been asking himself this question. It is this point of illumination which makes Ngugi's critical works so fascinating: from Homecoming through Decolonizing the Mind to his recently published Moving the Center.
As to the reason why Mazisi you persisted and persists in writing your great poetry in an African language while Leopold Sedar Senghor in Senegal writes in French, Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka in Nigeria continue to write in English, Mario de Andrade in Angola wrote in Portuguese, is that we in South Africa have a great tradition of literature written in our indigenous languages. There is practically no country in Africa, until perhaps very recently, that can compare with ours in the richness of the literature written in the African languages: we have Sotho literature, Zulu literature, Xhosa literature and so on. Albert S. Gerard's book, Four African Literatures (parts of which were lifted from your unfinished doctoral dissertation at the London School of Oriental Studies) is a proof of this. But here we come to a great paradox about our contemporary South African literature which would seem to disprove or actually does disprove the reason I'm postulating for your having always written in an African language. It is here that I would like to leave African continental cultural coordinates of your work and enter South African national cultural coordinates of it. Here is a shocker Mazisi. Practically all the South African writers of your generation, with the exception of yourself, wrote or write in English: Ezekiel Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Alfred Hutchinson, Can Themba, Todd Matshikiza and I could continue naming others. Today all of these writers are known as part of the literary movement of the 1950s, the Sophiatown Renaissance, which was profoundly influenced by the American Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. I hope someone in the near future, hopefully a South African, will write a book on the fascinating friendship between Ezekiel Mphahlele and Langston Hughes. In fact, the Sophiatown Renaissance is incomprehensible without the acknowledged influence of the great Hughes. These South African writers are also known as Drum writers, since they were congregated around the magazine called Drum. The Drum writers, while in exile, were able to bring closely together, with Christopher Okigbo, Wole Soyinka, John Pepper Clark and others, modern South African national literature in English and modern Nigerian national literature in English, through their joint work on the Transition magazine then based in Kampala and the Black Orpheus magazine based in Nigeria. I will touch on the relationship between black South Africa and black America towards the end of this presentation. If I do not mention other black South African writers who write or wrote in English, like James Mathews, Alex La Guma, Bessie Head, Richard Rive and others, it is because their situation is slightly different, their mother tongue is Afrikaans, with the exception of Bessie Head. But we know that after the Soweto Uprising of 1976, there emerged Black Afrikaans, which has complicated further and enriched the structure of our literary history. This is another matter.
Here is a second shocker Mazisi. The Staffrider writers of the 1970s, many of whom started writing previous to the Soweto Crisis, but who are also designated through the Soweto Uprising, have also written and continue to write in English. I'm thinking of Mongane Wally Serote, Njabulo Ndebele, Sipho Sepamla, Mzamane Mbulelo and many others. The seeming necessity to write in the English language is very strong. The persistence of the Sophiatown Renaissance writers and the Staffrider writers to write in English seem to disconfirm the theory that the extensiveness of the literature in the indigenous languages in our country has been a sustaining factor in your persistence in continuity of linguistic expression rather than veering toward discontinuity, a discontinuity which has been the prevalent mode in African literary history. My response here Mazisi, please excuse the language, can only be damm the staying power of English, an imperial and colonial language. But the are other theories on the staying power of the English language coming from India. I'm thinking of the position of Nirad Chaudhuri, in his great book, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, and the recently formulated position from the position of postcolonial literary theory by Aijaz Ahmad in In Theory. Both hold the position, in complexly different ways, that in the former British colonies the English language through persistence and perseverance has become an 'indigenous' language of those territories. It is a fascinating position. But I do not wish to pursue this matter further. Rather, I would like to move on to the central matter concerning us today, the phenomenon of Mazisi Kunene.
I would like to move on to the third level of the cultural coordinates within which your work is situated or can be viewed: the space of black international culture. I limit myself to only gesturing in this direction in the interest of time. Here Mazisi I'm thinking of your appraisal of the Negritude Movement. I have in mind your long introductory essay of 1969 to John Berger and Anna Bostock's translation of Aime Cesaire's Return to My Native Land. Your appraisal and evaluation of the Negritude Movement is warmer, respectful and more sober than the spleen directed responses of Wole Soyinka and Ezekiel Mphahlele's to it. What really fascinated you Mazisi, I think, was the epic quality of Cesaire's imagination. This is similar to the quality of your own imagination, which is epical. What was also memorable about your essay was your linking of Aime Cesaire and Frantz Fanon, and the nature of their significance to Africa. This question of the epic, reminds me something that happened during one of our West Berlin strolls of 1987. I will never forget this event. In the seventeen years I have known you Mazisi, we met for the first time in 1975 here at UCLA when I was completing my doctoral studies and you were taking up the professorship from which you are retiring today, this was the first time I had ever heard you praise anyone without reservations of any kind. You kept on and on and on about the unsurpassable brilliance of the Upper Voltian great historian, Jacqueline Ki-Zerbo. You called him "an authentic African animal". This, is highest praise that can possibly come from you Mazisi. I remember this very vividly, because just a few months before we met, after a separation of eight years, I had read the German translation of his book, Die Geschichte Schwarz- Afrikas. It is an astonishing document. Unfortunately and tragically there is no English translation of the French original. I too hold Jacqueline Ki-Zerbo in very high estimation. I would like quote these words, which I think Mazisi you will assent to, from Ki-Zerbo's 'General Introduction' to the First Volume of UNESCO General History of Africa: "Another imperative requirement is that African history must at last be seen from within, not still measured by the yardstick of alien values. There cannot be an independent collective personality without an awareness of self and of the right to be different. Of course, the policy and practice of self-examination do not consist in artificially abolishing Africa's historical connections with the other continents of the Old and New Worlds. But these connections have to be analysed in terms of mutual exchanges and multilateral influences, in which something will be heard of Africa's contribution to the development of mankind [emphasis in the original]."
Another writer whom you mentioned unreservedly was C.L.R. James. I
think the book of the moment for you was the The Black Jacobins. Your
fascination for these two figures was not accidental. I think what fascinated
you with these two great historians was the epic sweep of their historical
imagination. When C.L.R. James in his essay, "From Toussaint L'Ouverture
to Fidel Castro", which is an Appendix to the second edition of The
Black Jacobins, praises Cesaire for having united elements in modern
thought which otherwise would have remained asunder, this praise could
also be extended to your work. Insightfully analysing Return to My Native
Land, James enumerates these three achievements of Cesaire's poetry:
"He has made a union of the African sphere of existence with existence
in the Western world; the past of mankind and the future of mankind
are historically and logically linked; no longer from external stimulus
but from their own self-generated and independent being and motion will
Africa and Africans move towards an integrated humanity." I think Mazisi
of this could also be said of your poetry. I will go no further to confirm
this unity of poetical and historical perspectives between you and Cesaire,
than to read your poem, "Tribute to C.L.R. James: A great African and
a great Freedom Fighter", which you wrote and published in Emergences
1 a few months after James passed away four years ago:
I think your two published epics, Anthem of the Decades and Emperor Shaka the Great, and the two anthologies, Zulu Poems and The Ancestors and the Sacred Mountain, are also characteriszed by the epic sweep of the historical imagination. The epic structure or quality is characteristic of your poetry, including also your very short poems. You too, Mazisi, through your poetry, belong to the company of these two black great historians (I should not forget to mention the great Cheikh Anta Diop who passed away in February 1986. What he said in an interview with Carlos Moore about Aime Cesaire, in the latest double-issue of Presence Africaine dedicated to Anta Diop, is absolutely breathtaking in its brilliance). Your epics Mazisi are a re-enactment of history, if not a creation of history, at least a recreation of history. They postulate African cosmology, the meaning of life, the nature of heroism, the bond between man and woman and other related themes. Your epics form a unity with other African epics, in that they establish the lines of continuity between the past and the present, as well as establishing the significance of the past for the present and the possible pathways to the future. Your epics within the South African context re-connect the lineages of tradition stretching from Mshongweni through Ntsikane to Mqhayi.
I think Mazisi when you were forced to go into exile, you were simultaneously forced to abdicate a literary space which up to the present has been dominated by modern South African national literature in the English language. The indigenous literatures, because they were severed from direct continuity with your work , were displaced from the center of South African literary experience. I think your going back home tomorrow will help to resituate the indigenous literatures in their proper place in our cultural history. I think when Nadine Gordimer met you for the fist time in France a few months ago and in a way paid her respects to you, it was an acknowledgement that her domination of South African literature, though deservedly because of her genius, was going to be over very soon. Your return to South Africa for the first time in thirty four years will dispace her into a relative position. I think we South Africans, for the last thirty four years, whether we like it or not is irrelevant, have been living under the Literary Moment of Nadine Gordimer. Does your return to South Africa tomorrow Mazisi portend the beginning of the Literary Moment of Mazisi Kunene in our literary history? I leave you with this question Mazisi. What kind of National Poet are you going to be or have been or will be Mazisi kaMdabuli Kunene?
By a way of conclusion I would like to say this Mazisi. For the last
seventeen years you have resided here in Los Angeles in America. And
this has been your most productive period. You have written many epics
and anthologies which are as yet to be published. When they are published,
will we be able to trace the influence of the blues and spirituals,
or other black expressive forms on them? In other words Mazisi, what
has been your creative response to the great forces of African-American
culture? With this last question I would like to thank you for affording
me this opportunity to pay this homage to you. But before leaving the
podium I would like to read this poem, "The Bond", from Zulu Poems: