Alfred Assegai (Mkhonto) Kumalo was born on 4 January 1879 in Edendale, Pietermaritzburg. At the age of four his parents moved to Amajuba in the southeast of the Transvaal Republic where Kumalo herded cattle. Though forbidden by his parents to play with the local boys, Kumalo secretly did and so came into contact with traditional Zulu song, dance and dress. Kumalo received his first schooling at home from his mother, and then at school at Edendale. In 1891 he was admitted to the Nuttall Training Institution where he completed Standard 9 in 1893. 

In 1894 his family moved to the Witwatersrand, first to Krugersdorp and then in 1895 to Johannesburg, where Kumalo served for a while as an ox wagon driver in his father's business, ferrying goods from Natal to Johannesburg. However, he also took other jobs, such as office-boy, interpreter and clerk. The following year he worked as a messenger at the Jubilee Gold Mining Company. After the rinderpest had wiped out the oxen of the business he had taken over from his father, he worked for the Goldsmith Alliance in 1898. His stay on the Witwatersrand exposed him to a variety of Western musical instruments and influences which were later used in his compositions.

At the outbreak of the South African War in 1899 he returned to Natal””mostly on foot, since the Natal Railway had been commandeered by the Transvaal Republic, but partly also in a whites-only railway truck in the company of an Englishman whom he had impressed with his musical skills.

From 1900 Kumalo held a number of jobs in Pietermaritzburg. He worked as a clerk with the Pietermaritzburg Municipality Native Affairs Department; as a dairyman; and as an instructor in Zulu to the Borough Police””a position he retained until 1910. In 1906 he joined the Natal Native Horse Regiment which took part in the suppression of the Bambatha Rebellion. From 1912 to 1916 he was a building contractor, first in Krugersdorp and then in Randfontein, erecting wood and corrugated iron buildings. With the scarcity of building material during World War I (1914-1918) he returned to Durban. He held various clerical positions in Durban until 1952. In 1954 he joined the Edendale Hospital staff as telephone operator, and remained there until his retirement in 1961.

Kumalo showed a talent for music from an early age””for example in ditties when asking for bread or when beating out a rhythm on a tin drum. In 1903 he joined the Edendale Church Choir which performed in the Durban City Hall and, in 1908, in the Pietermaritzburg City Hall. In 1923 he formed the Zulu Male-voice Party in Durban which remained active until he left in 1952. He also led the close harmony group Kings of Harmony, winners of many trophies. Both these choirs performed traditional songs. In 1950 Kumalo was a member of the cast of the British film version of the novel Cry the beloved country by Alan Paton.

Kumalo's first attempt at composition was in 1899, the song Sanibona.

The composition was destroyed in a fire in 1913, but he never rewrote it. By 1920 he was composing in Zulu for young and old alike””choral, religious and secular works, mainly in ternary form. Five of these songs were widely acclaimed and are still regarded by all African choirs as among the best of the Zulu choral repertoire.

After his retirement in 1961 he was often commissioned to write church music. In July 1966 he suffered a stroke from which he did not recover. He was married. Kumalo had a sparkling personality and a good command of English, even in old age. He was also a founder member and the first secretary of the Bantu Social Centre in Beatrice Street, Durban (YMCA). He served until 1949 as assistant superintendent and later superintendent. In 1967 Shuter and Shooter published 24 of his songs in Izingoma zika Kumalo. Kumalo's compositions are listed in D.K. Rycroft and Y. Huskisson (both infra).


Verwey, E.J. (ed)(1995). New Dictionary of South African Biography, v.1 , Pretoria: HSRC.

Collections in the Archives