Cleopas Kunene: A man with no borders
He was activist, a spy, a teacher and a newspaperman – a complex man with substantial influence.
Cleopas Kunene was born in Edendale, Kwa-Zulu Natal in 1866. However, his allegiance remained with the Swazi people. He then moved to Healdtown Institution in the Eastern Cape where he got his education and qualified as a teacher.
His father, Cornelius Kunene was of Swazi origin and so Cloepas identified with the Swazi people – even though he had never been to Swaziland till he was in his twenties, in 1894.
It was then that he decided to move there and serve as an interpreter to the Swazi queen for the Swazi delegation to Britain. He even mentored King Dlamini IV (Bhunu) and his brothers Lomvazi and Malunge in the years 1895 and 1896. When his tenure as a tutor to King Dlamini IV and his brothers came to an end, he worked as a spy for the Swaziland commissioner – Johannes Krogh – in the South African Republic (SAR) and became influential in Swazi affairs.
As a spy for South African Republic
In the 1890s Kunene and Alpheus Nkosi, royal secretary, were accused of accepting bribes from the SAR. They were bribed to persuade Queen Labotsheni to approve the settlement of claims by the Swazi nation. Theophilus Shepstone, jr did not take the news well and soon after he was dismissed as the royal secretary. Kunene continued with the spying business when he spied for the SAR on the Swazi affairs and for the British intelligence during the Anglo-Boer War.
As a political activist
Before he left for Swaziland, Cleopas taught at Edendale and Ohlange of John Dube. He was also politically active at the Natal Native Congress (NNC). He was the chairperson of Natal Teachers’ Conference and the editor of Ipepa lo Hlanga of Mark Radebe Junior (1869-1924), which was connected to NNC.
Cleopas also contributed to Dube’s Ilanga lase Natal. He returned to South Africa after working as an interpreter and a spy and worked as a civil servant.
In 1908 he was the organiser for a movement in Natal called Iliso Lesizwe Esimnyama (Eye of the Black People). The aim of the movement was to organise chiefs and their rural communities in the Edendale branch. In 1911 he went to Johannesburg and became part of the meetings of the SANC that led to the establishment of the SANNC in 1912 in Bloemfontein.
As a newspaperman
Cleopas Kunene was the first English and isiZulu editor of Abantu-Batho from when it was established in October 1912 until September 1915 and again from July 1916 until he passed on in 1917.
He was reproved for sticking too much to English and for financial reasons encountered by Seme. He was replaced as editor-in-chief by Robert Grendon. He “served the paper with considerable success” says Limb.
After Grendon and Msane were fired, he resumed the position as an editor for the last time in his life and the existence of Abantu-Batho.
However, when he left Abantu-Batho the news did travel fast as rumours started to spread in February 1916 when Ilanga reported that the esteemed Kunene is no longer part of the paper. His departure was unbelievable as many subscribers read Abantu-Batho because of his reputation. He had made a name for himself in Swaziland, the Cape and Natal.
His second term as editor-in-chief of Abantu-Batho lasted for less than a year. Around either February or March 1917 he took a business trip to Swaziland with Richard Msimang, to meet Queen Labotsheni. During that time he was diagnosed with bowel influenza. His health deteriorated when he headed back to Sophiatown. Due to lack of medical attention he died on the night of 15 April 1917.