Zolani Mkiva was born into a poor Xhosa family in Idutywa, South Africa. The family belongs to a renowned line of orators and imbongis (folk poets), and Zolani Mkiva himself grew up to become one of the most famous imbongis of his time. There is no formal training for would-be imbongis: it is a natural gift one inherits from one’s father, who inherited it from his.
The imbongis perpetuate Africa’s most ancient oral tradition. In the past they acted as intermediaries between the tribespeople and their leaders, the often timid people making their fears and wishes known through the imbongi. The imbongi also kept alive the acts and events from the tribe’s past. He was a walking chronicle, often endowed with a prodigious memory. Another of his tasks was encouraging the warriors of his tribe during fights. His traditional attributes were the spear, the knobkerrie (a fighting-stick) and the fly-swish made of ox-tails.
Zolani Mkiva earned national fame when he acted as imbongi at the celebration of Nelson Mandela’s release from jail. In 1991 he was appointed Imbongi Yesiwe, i.e. Poet of the Nation. In 1994 television viewers around the world watched his impressive performance at Mandela’s inauguration as President of the Republic. Since then he has added lustre to many official functions with his powerful presentation, for instance when Walter Sisulu was awarded the freedom of the city of Johannesburg. Zolani Mkiva has received many honours; at a 1995 festival in Zimbabwe he was proclaimed King of African Poetry.
This site includes a poem by Zolani Mkiva in print, but only by way of exception. As a contemporary carrier of the African oral tradition he does not seek publication, but prefers to be heard.
[Zolani Mkiva took part in the Poetry International Festival Rotterdam 2001. This text was written on that occasion.]
Mandela's imbongi features in film