This story originally appeared June 01, 2016 on The Progressive website.
Madison, Wisconsin, and the world have lost a great voice for peace and justice. Poet and activist Daniel Kunene died this past week at the age of 93. Kunene was a professor emeritus in the University of Wisconsin Department of African Languages and Literature for the past thirty-three years. He authored sixteen books in English and Sesotho (a southern Bantu language of his native South Africa), as well as countless articles, essays, and individual poems.
Daniel Kunene was born in South Africa in April, 1923 and was forced to flee his home country in 1963, seeking asylum in the United States. He grew deep roots in Madison, becoming an important feature of the city’s cultural and political life. I first came to know Daniel Kunene through his work on anti-apartheid issues, which helped lead the university to divest its holdings in corporations doing business in South Africa. Kunene was a regular speaker at rallies and events and always had a powerful poem to share.
Here’s an excerpt from one of Kunene’s poems, “MIN[E]D WORDS,” published in 2009 in The Rock At the Corner of My Heart:
Your irreverence is infectious
You are life’s exuberance
You are life’s hope
Daniel Kunene was a regular featured guest at The Progressive’s annual Fighting Bob Fest, sharing poems that commented on the issues of the day with power and moral imperative. His work at UW-Madison included the translation of traditional and contemporary African poetry and took him to many parts of the world as a visiting scholar. He was not able to revisit his home in South Africa until 1993, shortly before the election of President Nelson Mandela.
Kunene’s poems were filled with anger against injustice, but were also full of life and love. In the late-1990s, he joined the Radio Literature collective at WORT-FM Community Radio where he would often read his own work, but more often showcase the work of others, including that of his students, who would receive critique and praise live on the air.
It was at WORT that Kunene met his second wife, Marci, who was at the time a volunteer on WORT’s evening news. His program followed hers, and his soft powerful voice captivated her. In a few years they were married. I remember with pleasure their annual Valentine’s Day program of love poems to each other.
Daniel Kunene died peacefully in his home on May 27, surrounded by family and friends. They spent their last week together reading his poetry and some of their own.
Norman Stockwell is the incoming publisher of The Progressive.
Poet Daniel Kunene reads at the Fighting Bob Fest kickoff event September 2010 at Madison’s Barrymore Theatre. Video by Paul Baker.