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Sisi Mathabo, the children and the Kunene Family:

An extraordinary South African, Mazisi Raymond
Kunene, passed away eight days ago on August 10,
after a long and distressing illness. 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

Some in my generation, including myself, first met and
got to know Mazisi Kunene during the years of exile.
Then, he was the Chief Representative of the ANC in
London, charged with the task to help organise the
Anti-Apartheid Movement, whose mission was both to
isolate apartheid South Africa and to extend support to
our movement, the African National Congress.

And thus we came to know him as a freedom fighter, a
dedicated activist for the liberation of our country.
Everyday we saw him doing the “ordinary” things that
an ANC liberation fighter in Europe in the 1960s had to

This meant educating the peoples of the world what
apartheid meant to the millions of the oppressed. It

meant attending many meetings to convince foreigners
that they had a duty to act against what the United
Nations would later denounce as a Crime Against
Humanity. It meant talking to individuals, small and big
meetings, to convince those who cared to attend that
they had an obligation to support the ANC, the
authentic voice of the masses of our people engaged
in struggle to defeat the apartheid system.

We saw him suffer from the frustration of results that
were difficult to achieve – with many meetings
organised and addressed, without generating the great
mass movement that would deliver telling blows
against the apartheid regime and system.

And yet in the midst of that “ordinary” activity, which
was of strategic importance to our liberation struggle,
we also knew that the Chief Representative of the ANC
in London, Mazisi Kunene, represented more than the
daily activities and the longer-term perspectives of our

We knew that he also lived and worked in another
world whose citizens or residents were people, who,
like him, found words and images that spoke of a
human essence beyond the daily challenges of
building the Anti-Apartheid Movement, mobilising
support for the ANC, and generating resources merely
to ensure that the Chief Representative of the ANC
had a place to stay, one meal a day, and enough
money to board a bus or a train to reach the next

A citizen of that other world, he moved in the company
of the creative spirits of the time and the century,
beyond our own narrow world of the material things
and the daily challenges that defined our own and
mundane lives.

The history of our struggle has yet to be told in all its
rich complexity. One important chapter of that history
will be the initiative that Mazisi Kunene and others took
to organise an art exhibition of paintings, sculpture and
manuscripts mobilised through the South African
Exhibition Appeal.

Mazisi Kunene and his collaborators appealed to the
world’s greatest artists to contribute at least one of
their works to an Exhibition dedicated to the struggle
against apartheid.

I have no hesitation in saying that this outstanding
Exhibition will forever mark one of the most memorable
highlights of the world struggle against apartheid, the
indelible signal that the struggle for the destruction of
the apartheid system was, in reality, a struggle for the
elevation of the human soul.

I am certain that it was this, rather than the mere
defeat of an evil regime, that persuaded the
outstanding painters and sculptors - or their curators -
Picasso, Marc Chagall, Giacometti, Henry Moore, Ben
Enwonwu, Robert Rauschenberg and others, to
contribute works to the South African (Anti-Apartheid)
Exhibition Appeal, free of charge.

I will forever claim that these brilliant creative minds
contributed to the South African (Anti-Apartheid)
Exhibition Appeal because they felt moved to respond
to the call of a kindred spirit, Mazisi Kunene, whose
creativity, and therefore the ability to see beyond the
world of material reality, defined who he was, as it
defined the artists whose works constituted the Anti-
Apartheid Exhibition.

The kindred spirit to which they had to respond was,
after all, a South African, a black artist formed within
the bosom of racist South Africa, our own poet and
creative mind, Mazisi Kunene, to whom we owe such
gems of original thought as “Zulu Poems”, “Emperor
Shaka the Great”, and the later “Anthem of the

In this regard, Sandile Ngidi has said, correctly, that
“Kunene was one of those African thinkers and artists
who sought to restore the dignity of the colonised and
once-enslaved peoples of Africa and those of the
African diaspora.” Another commentator said, “Kunene
is one of the few African writers who has not
subjugated himself to the language of the colonial

As I have indicated, one of the contributors to the
Exhibition was the eminent Nigerian painter and
sculptor, Ben Enwonwu. The famous magazine of its
time, “Presence Africaine”, published an article in 1956
by Ben Enwonwu, entitled “Problems of the African
Artist Today”, in which he said:

“In some parts of Africa, the problems of the modern
artist are more politically involved, and therefore more
difficult, than others. In more advanced parts where
political consciousness had culminated in the desire for
political independence or self-government with all this
implies, the artist's function and duty to his country as
an interpreter of the group-political ideology, have not
yet been fully realized, even by those Africans in
political power. At least, they have not realized that art
should develop simultaneously with political growth
and freedom.”

Perhaps Mazisi Kunene sought to portray this reality
when he wrote:

    “We are late in our birth
    Accumulating violent voices
    You whose love comes from the stars
    Give us the crown of thunder
      That our grief may overhang the earth.”

I must today say, as Ben Enwonwu said, that our
movement did not fully realise Mazisi Kunene’s
function and duty to his country as an interpreter of the
group-political ideology.

It did not realise that his art should develop
simultaneously with our political growth and our
advance to freedom. It did not understand that celestial
love could turn into the thunder of violent voices that
would impose persistent grief over our world.

Even as he worked to discharge his responsibilities as
the Chief Representative of the ANC, I saw Mazisi
Kunene immerse himself in a study of the spiritual
impulses of the world of the Egyptian, and therefore
African, Pharaohs. I saw him commune with modern
day Ethiopians, seeking to understand the
fundamentals of the ancient African civilisation that had
given birth to the then contemporary Ethiopia of
Emperor Haile Selassie.

As I interacted with, and served our movement and
people under the leadership of Mazisi Kunene forty
years ago, I did not understand then that I was in the
company of a very rare African who combined in his
being, as one integrated whole, our past, our present
and our future.

He thought and composed in his native tongue, isiZulu,
because he could neither see the present nor imagine
the future without proceeding from what had defined
our being, before it was corrupted by colonialism. He
could not ignore or walk away from the present, of
struggle against the dehumanisation of his people,
because he knew that they could not regain their soul
and achieve their rebirth without extricating themselves
from their condition of imposed subservience.

He dreamt and imagined and wrote of our restored
humanity, but only within the context of the restoration
of the humanity of all Africans, and therefore the recall
of all the ancient things, including our languages, which
had given us our unique being as proud Africans.

It may have been difficult for us to understand what
Mazisi Kunene said to us from one moment to another,
as he freely traversed the mutually distant but
connected worlds of our past, our present and our

But as he knit all three together, he provided us with
the vision we need, to decide what we should do about
our future. Simply put, he said, to all of us, that to be
human again, we must recover our identity as Africans.
He said:

    "[The ancestors] are the mystery that envelopes
    our dream.
    They are the power that shall unite us.
    They are the strange truth of the earth.
    They come from the womb of the universe."

And yet, determined to communicate the message that
we will not remain merely the creatures of the
ancestors, Mazisi Kunene urged that we should take
control of ourselves, of nature, and our future. Writing
of “Africa’s Celebration of Freedom”, he said:

    “From our very sacred moments, we uttered these
    We vowed that the vast forests shall follow us
    The vast jungles shall speak to us
    They shall sing the songs that are locked into their
    Their voices shall echo into the tumbling waves
    We too must follow these movements of water,

    Singing and shouting our songs from the ends of
    the earth”

From Asia and Europe and the Americas, Mazisi
Kunene sang and shouted our songs of African rebirth.
Wherever he was on Mother Earth, and from the land
of his birth, the vast jungles spoke to him. They sang
the songs that are locked into their power, the power
that gave them the strength to echo across the
tumbling ocean waves that constitute Africa’s bridge to
Asia and Europe and the Americas.

And so he followed the movements of the waves,
singing and shouting our songs of rebirth from the ends
of the earth.

It was right that before Mazisi Kunene left us, to join
the ancestors that are the power that shall unite us, the
nation should proclaim him as its Poet Laureate, as it
did. We know, therefore, that, whatever the grief we
inherit from the thunders of the age, because we are
late in our birth, he will send us his love from the stars.

Qhawe lamaqhawe!


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