Mzilikazi Khumalo

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Mzilikazi Khumalo (1932–2021) was a linguist, academic, composer and director of choral music


Born James Steven Mzilikazi Khumalo, he studied first for a teacher’s diploma through the Bantu Normal College in Pretoria in 1954, before taking his Bachelor of Arts degree through the University of South Africa (UNISA) in 1956. He later achieved the Bachelor of Arts Honours by correspondence, also through UNISA, in 1972.

He persisted with his studies in African languages and linguistics, achieving a landmark and highly sophisticated theoretical treatise on Zulu tonology for his Masters degree. His doctoral studies were in phonology, a sub-field of linguistics devoted to the systematic analysis of speech sounds. This work included an important collaboration with Charles Kisseberth, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Illinois, US.


Khumalo spent most of his career teaching, first in schools, and then at the University of the Witwatersrand. Khumalo’s appointment at the University of the Witwatersrand was initially as a language tutor. In the 1980s, he became the first black professor of African languages at the university. He was also its first black head of the department of African languages.

He was pivotal in establishing the Sowetan Nation Building Massed Choir Festival which he co-directed with Richard Cock from its inception. Khumalo and Cock first pioneered the innovative system of dual notation (tonic solfa with staff notation) that has become a staple in South Africa.

Following his retirement from the university in 1997, Khumalo served as vice-chairperson at the Southern African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO).

He pioneered the publication of three volumes of South Africa Sings, profiling the works of South Africa’s black choral composers in popular publications.

New National Anthem

Khumalo was appointed chair of the national anthem committee for South Africa in 1995. He was instrumental in advocating for Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika as the basis for a new anthem for the country. It was his idea to join the new and old anthems for purposes of reconciliation.

Contribution to SA theatre, film, media and/or performance

Khumalo’s contributions to choral music are exemplified in his work with school, church, and community choirs, and especially through the Salvation Army. He toured the US, Europe and the Caribbean. He also established important cultural ties with the African diaspora during apartheid.

Khumalo collaborated with important conductors, composers, librettists and companies to stage genre-defining works. Librettist and fellow linguist, Professor Themba Msimang, was his principal artistic collaborator on the epic uShaka kaSenzangakhona (1981/1996), and the opera Princess Magogo (2002). He arranged the song cycle Haya Mntwan’ Omkhulu (1999) with fellow composer Professor Peter Klatzow. These works were performed to acclaim – including at the Ravinia Festival, Kennedy Centre, and many other venues across the globe.

Awards, etc

Khumalo received the Via Afrika Prize for Linguistic Studies for his article 'Leftward Ho! In Zulu Tonology' published in the South African Journal of African Languages in 1990.

Khumalo’s achievements were recognised with honorary degrees from five South African universities.

In 1999, he was awarded the Order of the Star by President Nelson Mandela in recognition of his contributions to the nation.

He also received a Lifetime Achievement Literary Award from MNET in 2007. He was Professor Emeritus of African Languages at Wits University at the time of death.


Anna Walker. 'Mzilikazi Khumalo: iconic composer who defied apartheid odds to leave a rich legacy'. June 23, 2021. The Conversation.

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