Mazisi Kunene: Navigating the Multiple and Critical Intersections of a Spirit Being

Mazisi Kunene: Navigating the Multiple and Critical Intersections of a Spirit Being

Thursday, March 23, 2017 9:11 am


Ademola Araoye

By Ademola Araoye

“As the gods argued and debated, man waged war on earth…
Nomkhubulwane, why have you set the homeless winds against us”

You whose experience are richer than those of the gods,
Grant that I may emulate you in your own search of truth
Let me uproot my own preoccupation with my self image
With the blessings of my fellow beings
May I complete the ultimate goals of creation.

Madam Mathabo Kunene,

Thekwini Mayor: Her Excellency Cllr Gumede

President of the IFP: Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi

Minister of Arts and Culture: Mr Nathi Mthethwa

Director of the Center for Creative Arts: Mr David Maahlamela

Protocols and Salutation!

Permit me to congratulate you, Madam Mathabo Kunene and the Mazisi Kunene Foundation for making this long awaited day a reality. The concrete eventuation of the original isiZulu version of Emperor Shaka the Great, UNODUMEHLEZI KAMENZI, is not only a landmark event in the history of Zulu culture and tradition, it is also an authoritative authentication of African philosophical traditions. Today’s events further puts a stamp of validation on the essences of black humanity. Through your exertions Mazisi Kunene has been enabled to take African cosmology a notch higher. You have assuaged his explicit regret that the English version was published before the original isiZulu manuscript. I am truly honored to be here on this special day and rejoice with you on this great occasion.
Epo nbe, Ewa nbe o…..

Let us reference him by his full appellation. Mazisi Raymond Fakazi Mngoni Kunene. He was born in this gracious city, Durban, on May 12, 1930 in what today is Kwazulu-Natal province of the Republic of South Africa. He was raised in Amahlongwa. These basic facts are of great salience in grounding or even unearthing the spirit being that Mazisi Kunene turned out to be. In fact, they are the very beginnings of why we today, just a decade after his passage on 11 August, 2006, gather in his honor to explore the implications of the burdens of his life for humanity. Yes, for humanity, and by implication for the proud Zulu nation, for Kwa-Zulu Natal, for South Africa, for Africa as a whole and black humanity in its entirety. All these because, instrumentalizing his Zulu heritage as a comprehensive alibi as no one else before him, Kunene was in the avant garde of the search for holistic emancipation of the black universe. But he is more than just that when situated in the global scheme of things.

Events imposed by the combined forces oF the temporal, geo-political and cultural specifications of his birth constituted an unholy trinity of real life existential hazards that at once drove pervasive crippling domestic contingencies, and in reality what then seemed immovable exterminating externalities in the immediate and global universe of Mazisi Kunene. As a devoted apostle of the Ancestors, he also had to contend with the saintly constructive deconstruction of a deeply entrenched internalized culture of uninformed denigration of Zulu, and by implications, African cosmology by an obstinate ancient and pragmatic confraternity of earliest African intellectual victims of hegemonic intrusions. The epics Emperor Shaka The Great and the Anthem of the Decades are thus cosmic telepathies to both the living and the ancestors. They are, more importantly, monumental cathedrals erected to serve as institutional lighthouses in the redemption of a disoriented soul of Africa. It was therefore war on all fronts.

As with all iconic prophets, that war was even so most pronounced after his return from exile to a topsy- turvy South Africa with all the opportunistic scrambling unleashed by the disorienting rambunctiousness in the air of freedom of the post settlement. In this climate, no good deed went unpunished in the life of Mazisi Kunene. These were factors that in withering the sanity of the ordained template of humanity, brought ruin to life as a whole. But as Kunene pointed out: things may seem destructive in subjective human terms, but in the overall scheme of things must be understood as creative. It is important for man to recognize this fact for his own survival and freedom. Therefore, when we gather today, it is a celebratory feast of a gratitude of his vindication in his spirit essence and presence. I thank Madam Mathabo Kunene and the Mazisi Kunene Foundation for the honor of an invitation to celebrate this giant of a spirit.

The aforementioned broken template impeded or constrained individual life choices and in the final analysis directed the causes, courses and contortions of the life of Mazisi Kunene. This indeed applied to all the kindred comrades in the intellectual trenches before and immediately after him. This troubled context, predicated on an ascendant simplistic cognitive appreciations that drove a horrendous hegemonic order, directed in totality the hierarchical social and political order, horrific human relationships and the killing institutional landscape of this environment that impacted all. In effect, the construction and constrictions of the dolorous exterminating externalities also forced the nature of responses in the dedication to certain transcendental, transformatory and emancipatory causes that they generated for the victims.

Mangosutho Buthelezi, a Zulu leader, right and Madam Mathabo Kunene during the lecture

Mazisi Kunene was in the forefront of this tempestuous revolutionary ferment in mending the broken template of humanity in word and spirit. His battles rose above the mechanical firing of lethal bullets and the rationalized legitimacy of the insanity of hauling of mortars by the oppressed against the spiritually troubled and obscenely demented oppressor. The war was along multiple fronts: political, military, ideological, philosophical, spiritual, ideational, economic, physical all well encapsulated in a literary genre that sought to beam logical illuminations to the contradictions of life and death. His literary perorations acquire the character of wholly structured and integrated philosophical edifice. These many fronts, battles and dimensions of the war for self validation were won and lost. They were and are still intertwined. The war had been fierce. The decade before the birth of Mazisi Kunene had witnessed a ferocious intellectual schism on the pages of Umteteli wa Bantu news paper. The principal protagonists were Henry Selby Nsimang and R. V. Selope Thema. Intellectuals such Tiyo Soga and R. V. Selope Thema had challenged more progressive perspectives of Selby Nsimang that the Christian church and traditional metaphysical beliefs were predicated on similar, if not really the same historical principles.

Consequently, the supposed superiority of the latter is actually a myth. Selby Nsimang’s thesis is that at a deep level, the ethical, philosophical, epistemological and metaphysical principles of African religion were no different from those characterizing Christianity and Islamic religions, hence the claim of a superiority of one particular religion over the other is unfounded. Finally Henry Selby Msimang affirmed that since religion is no more formula or conventionalism to be merely copied, imitated or assimilated, the destruction of African religion by Christianity has created a permanent crisis in the metaphysical and psychic structure of the African. A sense of restoration was needed to balance the dis-equilibrated universe of black humanity.

The relevance of Kunene in this war is in the astute deployment of the phenomenon of Emperor Shaka to ground the philosophical precepts that had been denounced by many African intellectuals themselves who had come accept their own inferiority. Also, and probably more telling, is his explication of the basic assumptions of the Zulu cosmology in the Anthem of the Decades. He affirms, in this connection, that the Zulu cosmology is predicated on the existence and functioning of the physical and the non-physical entities. The harmony of two realms demonstrates a basic quality of the Zulu universe that is manifest in its duality. The duality is expressed through the balance of the two realms. Given this balance, the spiritual is thus not superior to the physical. Only god who is the source of all things is superior to all things. All the gods and the species of the universe are agents fulfilling the creative purpose of life. Accordingly, in the epics, Kunene is unending in breaking the boundaries of the horizons of the word, literarily, and in the reality of the wide world. The fundamentals of his major treatise are as salient today as they were when he set down these inspired epic songs. They have inestimable consequences for the continued vitality of the world and its humanity.

Listen to his open verse in Emperor Shaka the great:
Great anthem, by your power break the boundaries of our horizon
Fill the wide expanse of the earth with your legendary songs
Say then: people have power, people tear the garments of the night;
By their feet, they scar the ground with new life.

(A M A N D L A!!!!!)

All hail! The celebrants of the feast have come!
The Ancestors follow them
Whispering: ‘A great festival is to be repeated again and again!
Generation after generation comes here to play
Here they are: our Forefathers. They rise from the mist
Striding across the earth to nowhere,
Calling the name that invokes the sacred one of the festival
All hail to the trembling rivers of the afternoon.

After the night has covered the earth
Rouse us from the nightmare of forgetfulness
So that we may narrate their tales.
You will see them, the Forefathers, by the brightness of the moon
You will see their great procession as they enter the mountain
Eternally their anthems emerge.
How can we be silent before the rising sun?
How wonderful! We can sing the sacred son of our Forefathers
By our ancient epics we are made beautiful

It is clear that long before and after Mazisi Kunene as well as today the struggle for holistic emancipation that encompasses all dimensions of the physical, material and spiritual realms had been and has remained the enduring existential reality of black humanity in the longitudinal span of human history. Accordingly, the struggle for emancipation, implying identity validation, in its various expressions has remained the constant urgency and of a daunting immediacy of Black Earthlings in more contemporaneous times. The struggle, in practical terms, is a resistance to the vassalization of the identity of the black earthling. This has been the character of the ineluctable interactions since improved technological capacities led to he epochal rendezvous of all evolved humankind. The other war at all levels has been integrated into the main challenge of living as a black human.

Mazisi Kunene accepted the historic challenge that made him a full philosopher-Generalismo in the other actual war of counter veiling ideas that was a full complement of the war of bullets and mortars. The two wars were interlinked, but conceptually distinct. There was the Umkhomto we Sizwe and its battles of lethal bullets on the physical and material planes. There is the real other war. This is the unending war of intellectual insurgency, more potent and enduring than the explosions of mortars and lethal fire, for the eternal validation of the ideational and spiritual authenticity of the essences of the black being. Kunene’s and the feathered brigades in the trenches of this war were and are still caught in the struggle for the continued validation of the essences of our humanity. These essences are built on the understanding of the great female creative force. Kunene elucidates that although the creative agents exist in Zulu belief, it is not defined in anthropomorphic terms.

The most fundamental aspect of Zulu religion is the belief in the existence of the Supreme Creator. The Supreme Creator is said to be unknowable. Such unknowability is in itself a point of knowing as it defines a man’s position in the total scale of creation and postulates man’s own acceptance of his state of cosmic infancy.

It is critical to highlight that the creative agents in Zulu mythology are associated with the forces of growth. Nomkhubulwane, the only daughter of God and giver of rich life, is the most clearly defined of all cosmic powers. It is to her that the community supplicates for water, in times of drought. Water, of course, is the font and sustenance of life. Water, im no get enemy! Water has no enemy, exclaims Fela Anikulapo Kuti- the late cultural activist and priest at the Shrine in Lagos.

These seminal expressions of Kunene’s engagements are found in the huge epics of Anthem of the Decades and Emperor Shaka the Great, among the corpus of work growing by the day. An epic poem is a long, narrative poem that is usually about heroic deeds and events that are significant to the culture of the poet. Many ancient writers used epic poetry to tell tales of intense adventures and heroic feats. For Mazisi Kunene the epic, as a cosmic address to both the Ancestors and the living, also served as an armor and now are shining bayonets to disgorge imposed false narratives given the transcendence of their expansive temporality and rise above the material in scope. They also illuminate the understandings of the spiritual realm as projects in the heroics of a nation. While the almost coded canons and cadences of the incantations of the epics that were drawn from the classic genre of the Zulu Royal Shakain court were very utilitarian for the specificities of the immediate challenges at hand that ended with the negotiated settlement, more importantly they also rose above the existential and quotidian panics and traumas of the immediacy of their instigations. How monumental this transcendental yoke is has become the life burden of Madam Mathabo Kunene, who has to salvage every written word on every yellowing scrap of paper or cardboard scattered in the nooks and crannies of the Mazisi Kunene museum that used to be her home.

Calling this Abami Eda-Spirit Being- by his full name is an invocation to the dizzying heights that his unfolding life’s works threaten, in spite of ourselves, to elevate us. Kunene highlights that spirits eventually complete their cycle. After many years of association with the community of the earth, they are then absorbed into the primordial cosmic power. And Kunene’s works fervently, surely and earnestly, still trickling in with every piece of yellowing note, rumpled covers of products, white paper, cardboard or even soft tissues normally consigned to the privacy of small rooms retrieved and salvaged from the commodes and nooks of Madam Mathabo Kunene’s home, suggest that the ever expansive unending splay of the harvest of Kunene’s works and in their constant exfoliations shall further ultimately liberate him. False. No, it shall only further set us free. For indeed, we are gathered here to celebrate the axiomatic truisms that underpin the constancy of the struggle, our sometimes frivolous and then mighty contestations, as the essence of life. Madam Kunene’s quotidian exertions of collating frayed and yellowing notes of lyrics is the reflection of the restlessness of a true Spirit Being, possessed of searing visions of poetic truths defying time and climes in their eternity and universality.  The voice of th Ancients and Ancestors had to be heard.

Kunene codifies Shaka’s encounter with Nqoboka
Shaka: What strange thoughts occupy your mind?
Why do you sit brooding in peace time?
Nqoboka said: I am possessed by the voices of the Zulus
The great congregations of the people are singing and talking;
Their voices penetrate through to the Ancestral Spirits
I feel their presence; I feel the presence of ancient heroes.
Even those who wish us ill dare not speak!…
Through the years our nation has seen many trials,
Yet none has found us unprepared.
By your wisdom the nation grows like an ancient tree
And through you no winds, no storms, shall uproot this plant.

The festival went unabated.

The festival burst with pleasant songs
The Ancestors heard the voices of their children;
The embraced them and kissed their forehead
When the High Priest had poured the purifying medicine
He carried the sacred branch of the royal grounds
He made a solemn prayer, calling the spirit of the Queen Mother….page 353….

In the above canons of communal wisdom, Mazisi transposes the world, not just the Zulu or us gathered here, to the converging height of a people’s temporal and spiritual planes. It is also the height of defiance in the circumstances of the era of hatred. It is the coded Amandla rendered in the voice of and with the authority of the Ancestors.

Madam Mathabo Kunene, on behalf of Africa, I salute you!!!

Mazisi Kunene’s legacy is multi-dimensional. There is the literary giant masquerade with not just an assured place, but a gangling presence in the cove of the blessed constellation of spirits of the land. He would be in the treasured company of SEK Mqhayi, John Langalibelele Dube, Pixley ka Iseme Seme, John Kush Ngubane, HIE Dhlomo, Benedict Wallet Villakazi, Gerald Sekoto, R V Selope Thelma and William Wellingotn Gqoba, among so many others to whom we pay tribute. There is also Kunene in asylum as the revolutionary activist in London. He was obviously also the restive teacher in Los Angeles, to which I arrived just as he was leaving in 1993. Our common brother and friend, who doubled as my benefactor, Ntongela Masilela, was passionate and never tired about the compelling task of preserving all the available and accessible elements of the intellectual history of South Africa. He was in the position to know and to unequivocally assert the special placement of Kunene in the global firmament.

Yet, while the many disaggregated and atomistic appreciations of Mazisi Kunene have underlined the greatness of our spirit being, a more holistic situation of him elevates his life’s enterprise in revealing a salience well beyond the immediacies and specificities of his location. But they all, including his cherished comrades, lived in an uncertain and dangerous era characterized by great universal dichotomies and great denunciations of the presumed normative. There were no accommodations, except those made by the subject peoples to survive. It was a time of great strife for denunciations and subordination at all levels. And finally, more importantly, there is Mazisi Kunene, the great and unwavering disciple of the ancestors. The great apostle who decoded and proclaimed Their message of the uncompromising imperatives of our self appropriations in the Anthem of the Decades for our age and generations to come, is indeed the Kunene that I have come to address. He is the enigmatic architect of the undoubtedly futuristic challenge of holistic reconstruction of our black world and our singular universe toward a totalistic emancipation and revalidation of the complete universe and world of that black humanity. Apostle Kunene and The message have long been coming.

The Global Context of Kunene’s Burden

The first challenge we confront in the age of Mazisi Kunene is that humanity in its entirety was enveloped in a seeming incubus expressed in an era described as dominated by volatile ambivalence. Niall Fergusson calls the period between 1904 and 1953 the Age of Hatred. This had universal application manifest in the systemic turbulence with local variations in their expressions. The centrality of race in the age of hatred has been codified. Noting that even though race is not a genetically meaningful concept, Fergusson nevertheless observes that race has been such a powerful and violent preoccupation of modern times. He traces the first ostensible attempt to subdivide the human species to biologically distinct race to the Swedish botanist Carolus Linneaus (Carl von Linne). According to Ferguson:

Linneaus, like all his many imitators, ranked the various races according to their appearance, temperament, and intelligence, putting the European man at the top of the evolutionary tree, followed by American man (ill tempered,…obstinate, contented, free), Asian man (severe, haughty, desirous) and invariably at the bottom-African man (crafty, slow, foolish). Whereas the European man was ‘ruled by custom, Linneaus argued African man was rule by caprice.

These atrocious demarcations of fake science were not about ending. Ferguson advances further that by the end of the nineteen century, racial theorists had devised more elaborate methods of categorization, mostly commonly based on skull size and shape. In his own case, the English polymath Francis Galton developed a scale of racial intelligence that place ancient Athenians at the top and Australian aborigines at the bottom.

These developments had implications for the ungodly trajectory of events in South Africa. Combining the fake science with the nudity of God, and with influences from German nationalist philosophers who rated the nation and the Volk as the highest ideals to strive for, South Africa was effectively locked in its path to its historic damnation and its human tragedy. By November 1960, Piet Meyer, who had begun a career in the Broederbond in the 1930s, when Mazisi Kunene was born, and seemingly had come to personify the encroaching separatist Christian Volk nationalism of the Afrikaner, had ascended the pinnacle of the Broederbond, a position that he held until April, 1972. The Broederbond gave traction to the hatredness of the age in South Africa. In this role, the Broederbond was the sheriff and shepherd that kept everyone in check. It subverted the normal workings of society. The Broederbond believed that its leaders were chosen by their nude god. It was a chairman of the Broederbond, Dr Andries Treurnicht, who as Deputy Minister of Bantu Education, issued the Afrikaans teaching decree that sparked the 1976 Soweto uprising.

Christian Nationalism, the Doctrine of Predestination and the Nudity of God

John Matisonn observes that Christian Nationalism in South Africa, drawing on Abraham Kuyper, rejected everything sane. This included the complex Zulu understandings of the creative force and the order of the universe that by linking social events with the cosmic beginnings and claiming for them a supernatural edict affirms the sanctity of the current social order. This order is clear that cosmic whims do not always coincide with the needs of human life. Christian nationalism also repudiated the rationalism of the French revolution and the key tenets of the Enlightenment that dethroned the thoroughly abused God constructed in the image of the frailties of a lost generation of Man and endowed in the soiled garments of Kings from political power and instead opened the way to the enfranchisement of the people to elect their representatives and participate in key decision making. He further notes that in South Africa, Christian Nationalism, drawing on Abraham Kuyper, rejected the 1789’s anti-God, anti-clerical, anti-Church challenge to the political power. It repudiated rationalism of the Enlightenment. The self imposed obligation of the Christian Nationalists was to attack other gods and doctrines of liberalism, communism, rationalism, materialism, and internationalism. One could also add to the litany the complete lack of comprehension of the notion of human dignity by the Christian nationalists. The Dutch Reformed churches propagate similar Calvinist beliefs and convenient doctrines that paradoxically assert that their very parochial God is indeed eternal, infinite, wise, and just, and in their fact book is the Creator of the universe. What a god!!

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