The Intellectual Practice of Mazisi Kunene & African Languages in the Future

Few today can imagine that when Shakespeare was writing in English during his time, it was not fashionable to do so. During the 1500s educated English people wrote and read Latin. French was used for legal matters, while Latin was used to write science, philosophy and theology. That is what they learnt. They did not care much about their own language. English was believed to be incapable of producing scientific and literary complexity.

It was only generations after Shakespeare himself had died that the English language grew as a tool for writerly and technical communication. When the English decided to revive their language, they found it insufficient for the scientific and philosophical discourses they wished to convey. They started an agressive process of translating texts in Greek and Latin (and French, Portuguese)  into the English language. Naturally this prompted the invention of new terms, to describe the biological taxonomies, literary concepts, etc. that were now of interest. For these later generations Shakespeare’s writings were viewed as inaugural in what they viewed as the ‘true’ literature of the English people. It is not just that Shakespeare introduced new words, but he also often used pre-existing terms in new contexts.

When we consider the thousands of lengthy poems in isiZulu by Mazisi Kunene, most of which have yet to be published we realize how little we know of his impact, even though he has been gone for more than a decade. This is a man who wrote ferociously in the language of isiZulu when it was not fashionable to do so for a serious writer. The belief was that for one to truly get an audience for their literature they must write in English in order to reach a wider audience.

Kunene’s poems bring to the indigenous language of Zulu, a big world, often of disunity, imperfection, but without falling into the grammar of a dying language. His Zulu is a global one, while still rooted in the African sensibility.The globalism of Kunene, is attested to by the fact that despite having spent decades in exile, in Europe and the United States, he never stopped writing in his home language. Not even the grand ovations at universities like Stanford and UCLA could tempt Kunene to forsake his tongue.

To the extent that Kunene has been labelled by some as “the greatest poet Africa produced in the twentieth-century.”[2]But the trouble with such a high praise is that it still leaves us without a clear understanding of his creative apparatus, by this I mean his frame of reference. It is important to put context into this frame: firstly, the fact that South Africa has a considerably long tradition of writing in indigenous languages compared to other parts of the continent. Magema Fuze is but an early example in the Zulu context, but we have the likes of Ntsikana, Tiyo Soga, SEK Mqhayi to mention a few who wrote in Xhosa, as well as Sol Plaatje and others who wrote in seTswana.

Secondly, by the time of Mazisi Kunene a great intellectual debate had already ensued in the 1930s on the writing of African literature in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. The two main protagonists in this debate were HIE Dhlomo, who wrote in English, and BW Vilakazi, who believed that African literature could only thrive if composed in our indigenous languages. Kunene shared Vilakazi’s sentiments, he later wrote, “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”.[3]

The truth is that although Zulu literature (and other African languages) has been published since the 1910s, it has developed under a severely constrained environment. The reasons can be summed up as follows:

  1. Writers in Zulu have been few and far between: A fundamental belief of the colonial (and apartheid) system was that African men and women were better suited for manual labour rather than for intellectual work. One of the ways in which this transpired in the contacts that people made in the cities was in the development of a language called fanakaloFanakalo is a hodge-podge of Zulu-English, that emerged in the interactions between servants and their employers in Johannesburg in the 1900s-1910s. During those days most of the workers, houseboys, cleaners and coach-drivers did not speak English. (Nor did some of the employers themselves who spoke a variety of European languages, at the time.) A language developed first known as “Kitchen-Kaffir,”[1]and later on Fanakalo. Fanakalo grew out of a purpose of dispensing instruction to the Kaffir/native; language was reduced to a scope that was adaptable for exercise of instruction. By its intent this language mirrored the race-separatist vision of the state, by minimizing the variety of human interactions that could occur through language between people of different racial groups. Fanakalo spoke of: ‘Thatha lo,’ ‘faka lo;’ (‘take this,’) (‘bring that.’) The emphasis in the instructive in fanakalo stylized and perpetuated the view of African men and women as manual labour than as thinking people. So it was with the development of such languages as fanakalo, that the prestige of speaking/writing in African languages diminished. Educated people wanted to prove that they were more worthy than fanakalo, and so they preferred English. The African elite that claimed to speak ‘pure’ Zulu often fossilized their speech in the process of doing so, by reserving it for themselves, by its obsession with dead customs, which made it alienating to the ordinary men and women on the streets, whose concern, in this time of great urbanization (between the 1940s-1960s) was more on the explanation and elaboration of the cosmopolitan-rural tensions in terms of African realities, characterized by an appetite to see itself mirrored in the various struggles of black lives all over the world. None of this complexity could be represented by this elite whose preoccupation with Romantic prose and naturalism did not seem to gel with their reader’s own reality. This is the case in the literary works of RRR Dhlomo and in the early works of BW Vilakazi.
  2. Most of the writerly output was intended for school textbooks:In instances where African languages were promoted, particularly during the 1900s, the demand was from government departments, such as the Native Affairs Department. They published books they anticipated would be suitable for educational purposes. The books were also expected to be sanitized of any political agitation or any complexity in character development which could imply multiple positions of opinion.In the 1937 the Zulu Cultural Society (Ibandla lika Zulu) was formed with the aim of preserving Zulu cultural matters. It was founded primarily by influential Africans in Natal and Zululand who were teachers, such as later nobel laureate inkosi Albert Luthuli, journalist and mentor of the first ANC Youth League HIE Dhlomo and Charles Mpanza who became the Society’s first secretary.  One of the objectives of the Zulu Society was to be the main African informant to government in the selection of school textbooks in isiZulu and other matters of translation related to official government information, such as radio broadcasting. They wanted to also be a leader in standardization of orthography, etc. They cooperated with the Native Affairs Department as well as with the white academics and linguists who were part of the newly established departments of Bantu Studies, anthropology, volkekundeat the local universities. Whites themselves did not stand back, they established their own organizations concerned with African cultures, such as the African Music Society (formed in 1947). The government also extended its statecraft by appointing more people into positions of African administration, such as Native Commissioners, advisors, both at a regional and national level.Although the Zulu Society had some of the most progressive leaders of the time, the close relationship it kept with government canalized the faculty of language to the codes of secrecy and bewilderment—which were they ways in which apartheid made itself believable to itself, it was bewildering as those who were recipients of its ill-treatment learnt to presume what the codes meant. Sometimes they did not mean what they thought they meant, and this slipperiness in interpretation—an interpretation made only by those with the power to speak—normalized bewildering situations in the everyday lives of ordinary civilians (Njabulo Ndebele explains this very well in Rediscovery of the Ordinary).

So two codes were at play, the one was through fanakalo which was to imprison inter-racial communication in the realm of the instructive, the other in the African languages themselves which were state captured through Native Affairs administration.

The severe governmentality of Zulu language development meant a limitation in imaginative scope of the subjects covered by authors, who had to toe the line of government policies. Naturally the subjects which were found to be the most suitable were those that related to the scientific investigations of the white academics in areas of ethnology, ethnography, ethnomusicology; the subjects they found most interesting were those related to custom, ritual and traditional performance. In essence, they preferred stories about tribal history rather than accounts of the urban sociological and economic transformations experienced by African communities. Such stories would place less blame on the segregated political state for the devastations experienced by African people at the time.

But a time is coming where generations will hunger for expression in their own language, as the English did after Shakespeare. The locus of the development of this language will be owned by Africans themselves.

A generation will rise who understand this knowledge (Intellectual Property) that they hold as precious for the wellbeing of society, to the extent that they are willing to die being misunderstood.

They have anticipated future decolonial contexts,

where Africa’s resources will no longer be undermined,

and Africans will have confidence in their contribution to mankind.

In this context, Kunene as one who has guarded knowledge of the Zulu language even unto death, will emerge as a trailblazer.

Africans rise!

[1]Onselen, Charles (1982).

[2]Masilela, Ntongela (2000). “Mazisi Kunene” <> Accessed 20 August 2016

[3]Kunene, Mazisi (1993). “Writers at Work: Mazisi Kunene,” Southern African Review of Books.

By  Thokozani Mhlambi

Follow him on Instagram : @thokozani_mhlambi

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