Benedict Vilakazi (1906-1947) was born at Groutville Mission Station. He was a Zulu poet, novelist, scholar and a teacher. The fifth child of six born to Mshini ka Makhwatha and Leah Hlengwane ka Mnyazi, both Christian converts, Benedict Vilakazi grew up near KwaDukuza. Called Bambatha kaMshini as a child, the young Bambatha herded cattle, and attended school sporadically. His parents did make efforts to get him into Groutville school as early as age six and, despite enforced absences, he finished Standard 4. He then studied at St Francis College, Mariannhill, the Roman Catholic monastery just outside Durban, and in 1917, came under the special tutelage of Father Bernard Huss. At his mother's insistence he took on the family name of Vilakazi. At the time he was baptised with the names Benedict Wallet.
Achieving his Teacher's Certificate in 1923, Vilakazi taught first at Mariannhill College and then at the Catholic Seminary at Ixopo from 1924 to 1930. For a period he was at St. Francis College again but finding he did not have the vocation for the Catholic priesthood, he left, moving in 1933 to the Ohlange Institute where he worked with the founder, John L. Dube. Studying on his own, he earned a B.A. with distinction from the University of South Africa in 1934 with special work on the Zulu Language.
In the early 1930s, Vilakazi began to publish his poetry in various journals, including ILanga lase Natal (The Natal Sun), UmAfrika (The African), The Bantu World, and The Star; and the scholarly articles in Zulu and English in such reviews as African Studies, Bantu Studies, The Native Teachers' Journal and Forum. Published as Volume 1 of the Bantu Treasure Series was his collection of early poetry Inkondlo kaZulu (Zulu Songs), 1935, the first collection of western influenced poetry in Zulu to be published. Vilakazi's next collection of verse, published as Amal'eZulu (Zulu Horizons), later appeared as Vol. VIII of the Bantu Treasury Series.
Three novels of his appeared in the 1930s: Nje nempela (Really and Truly), 1933 and Noma nini (Forever and Ever), 1935, and U-Dingiswayo ka Jobe (Dingiswayo, Son of Jobe), issued in 1939. Noma nini, written in 1932 or earlier, won a prize in 1933 in the third competition of the International African Institute. With Professor Doke as his mentor he helped in the compilation of the Zulu-English Dictionary.
Vilakazi became an assistant to Professor Doke in 1935 in the Bantu Studies Department as a teacher of Zulu. At the University of the Witwatersrand he earned his B.A. (Honours) in 1936 with special work in Bantu Languages. Two years later he completed an M.A. with a thesis entitled 'The conception and development of poetry in Zulu.'
His D.Litt, the first doctorate to be won by an African, was awarded to him on March 16, 1946. His dissertation was 'The Oral and Written Literature in Nguni.' He later became a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Bantu Studies and at the time his death, was a member of the Pius XII University College at Roma, Lesotho, where he served as president of the Catholic African Teachers' Federation and editor of the Catholic African Teachers' Review.
He lectured to African troops during the Second World War, and, though he avoided politics, began in early 1947 to rally support for an African Authors' Conference in Bloemfontein. Invited were Herbert I.E. Dhlomo, Jordan Khush Ngubane , Davidson Don Tengo Jabavu, Richard Victor Selope Thema, Jacob Mfaniselwa Mhlapho and Jacob Robert Malie. However before the conference took place, Vilakazi was struck down by meningitis, and died on the afternoon of October 26, 1947, at the Coronation Hospital, Johannesburg. He left his second wife, Emily Nomsa Phoofolo Vilakazi (his first wife died in 1942), and five children by his two marriages.
In 2016 Vilakazi was bestowed the Order of Ikhamanga by President Jacob Zuma during the National Orders Awards held that year. The award recognised his contributions in the field of literature.
Now I Do Believe (Lament for my father - ten years later)
Translated from the Zulu by Cherie Maclean
Now I do believe that he has died, Because when the sun lights up the earth I see animals grazing in the morning, Whisking their hairy tails, Which are white like the cows at umHlali, Still however I sometimes see dusk at midday.
Now I do believe that he has died, Because it also became dusk for me at midday with Mandlakayise. When I asked them to take me to him, They sorrowed with me, I saw him lying down not yet covered up. I saw a dream coming in the middle of the day.
And so it was also with Nomasomi. The stars of her eyes were closed, She became cold and failed to warm up again. As for me, I could not stand and my arms shook I took a quick look, her face became dusk, And her astonishing beauty became obscured for me.
How can I not believe that you are dead When your road is open in front of me? I see all the years you have worn away. It seems as if your own going opened the door For others to go out when they were tired, Indeed they are following you and not returning.
They don't return or you, hero of umZwangedwa. They bade farewell and left me standing here alone. Others I have buried at Groutville, Where the darkness covers them up; Others I have planted at Mariannhill, There they are sheltered by the hens, Because I hear the bell of angelus ringing, It wakens them early to pray as it rings. I see the red sunset, I saw it turn the hills themselves red.
The red soils down at Mariannhill I saw shining and competing. I lay on the ground near a big fig tree There where grandfather Frans lies, I heard his words: 'Let us ring the angelus Winter and summer it rings without grief!'
And so I am now satisfied that he is dead, Because I see even in myself the falling Out of the hair of youth, I am grey, It gives me dignity, the mark of age Which I saw with you when you were tiring. After that you kept going until you came to nought, I myself saw that you were slowly disappearing.
Today I do believe that he is dead, Because in the place of Sleep I see you You come with a cool heart, You make me to cross over through gateways and fords Of wisdom and awareness; I can hear your guiding staff tapping In front of me although I cannot see you. I am like a blind person with my bodily eyes. Yes, now I do believe that he is dead, And that he has gone away for ever and ever.
Poetry 1935. Inkondlo ka Zulu, Vol.1 of Bantu Treasury Series. (1965; in new orthography.) 1945. Amal'eZulu, Vol. VIII of Bantu Treasury Series. (In new orthography, 1962. English translation as Zulu Horizons by D. Malcolm and F L Friedman.
Novels 1933. Nje nempela. 1935. Noma nini. 1939. U-Dingiswayo ka Jobe.
Critical Articles 1939. 'African Drama and Poetry,' South African Outlook, LXXIX. 1942. 'Some Aspects of Zulu Literature,' African Studies, I, Johannesburg. 1945. 'The Oral and Written Literature in Nguni,' unpublished doctoral dissertation, The University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.