Benedict Wallet Vilakazi (January 6, 1906-October 26, 1947), Zulu poet, novelist and philologist, distinguished himself as a linguist and is responsible for creating a genre of poetry which combined traditional Zulu praise-poetry with the blank verse form. He was also the first African senior lecturer at a white university (University of Witwatersrand, 1935).
Born Bambatha ka Mshini in Groutville, Natal, Vilakazi was sent to school at the early age of six by his Protestant Christian parents. In 1917, he became the protégé of a Catholic priest, Father Bernard Huss, and was introduced to Roman Catholicism while studying at St. Francis College in the Mariannhill Catholic Mission. Vilakazi was converted and baptized, thus assuming his new names. In 1923 he completed his teacher training and taught in two Catholic institutions, St. Francis College and the Catholic Seminary at Ixopo, until 1933 when, stating that he had no vocation for the Catholic priesthood, he left to join the staff of Ohlange Institute. In the same year he married Nomasomi Nxaba, a nurse. They had three sons. In 1934 he obtained, after private study, a B.A. degree cum laude from the University of South Africa, having specialized in the Zulu language. In 1935 he joined the staff of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) as a lecturer in the Department of Bantu Studies. From this university he obtained a second B.A., as well as a D. Litt. degree. After his first wife died in 1942, he married Nomsa Phoofolo. A son and a daughter were born of this union.
Vilakazi’s poetic career began in the 1930s, with the publication of poems in local newspapers and scholarly journals. In 1935 his first book of poems, Inkondlo kaZulu, was published. This was followed in 1945 by a second volume, Amal’eZulu. After experimenting with the classical English genres, Vilakazi abandoned them and used a unique poetic form which has been followed in the main by subsequent Zulu poets.
Vilakazi was also the most prolific writer of his time. He contributed articles to scholarly publications, co-authored a Zulu-English Dictionary, collaborated in the production of various Zulu readers and edited the Catholic African Teachers’ Review. His earliest novel, Nje nempela, was published in 1933 and was followed by two others: Noma nini (1933) and UDingiswayo-ka-Jobe (1939).
Janheinz Jahn, et. al., Who’s Who in African Literature, Horst, 1972; W.J. de Kock, ed., Dictionary of South African Biography, Tafelberg, 1976.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Three: South Africa- Botswana-Lesotho-Swaziland. Ed. Keith Irvine. Algonac, Michigan: Reference Publications Inc., 1995. All rights reserved.