A colossal figure amongst South African choral music composers and directors, Professor James Steven* Mzilikazi Khumalo was born on 20 June 1932 on the Salvation Army farm, kwaNgwelu (known as Mountain View in English), in the Vryheid district of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), where his parents – Andreas and Johanna Khumalo – were Salvation Army minister trainees. His parents were deeply religious and instilled this into their son who remained a staunch Christian throughout his life. This echoed in his compositions, along with his Zulu tradition as nearly all of his music was in isiZulu.

Shortly after his birth, Prof Khumalo’s parents were ordained in the ministry and the family moved to Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, before moving again to Hlabisa, KwaZulu-Natal, where his schooling began. Other than religion, music occupied a huge part of the family’s life, with Prof Khumalo and his siblings all being able to play instruments from a young age. Unsurprisingly, at a young age the young Prof Khumalo joined the school’s choir and participated in singing at community events like weddings. This is also where his life-long involvement with choral music would begin and it was during this period that he would develop a deep love for traditional music.

Later, as a member of the senior school choir, Prof Khumalo was introduced to Western vocal music. He also joined the church band, playing solo euphonium, and learned staff notation on top of the tonic sol-fa with which he was already familiar.

After spending a year in Venda, Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo), Prof Khumalo continued with his schooling at the Fred Clarke High School in Soweto, Transvaal (now Gauteng). Again, he joined the school choir and would occasionally lead rehearsals and train the soloists, as well as assist with training the junior school’s choir. 

Graduating from high school in 1950, Prof Khumalo then spent the next year working to earn the money he needed to go to college. Due to South Africa’s racial policies under apartheid, he was unable to study at one of the major universities in the country. However, a scholarship he earned enabled him to enrol in a three-year teacher’s training program at the Bantu Normal College in Pretoria, Gauteng. Following this he continued with his studies, graduating with a BA degree with majors in English and isiZulu in 1956 from the University of South Africa (UNISA). Later, he obtained his Honours degree in 1972 (also through UNISA) before achieving his MA and PhD degrees in African languages and linguistics at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University), Johannesburg, Transvaal.  

He then began teaching at the Wallmansthal Secondary School in Pretoria and also started composing music. In 1958, he completed his first composition – Ma Ngificwa Ukufa (When death is upon me). Ma Ngificwa Ukufa was a poem by Dr Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, who was hailed as the ‘Father of Nguni Literature’. The composition was selected for the Teacher’s Selection of the first National Choral Festival of the African Teachers Association of South Africa (ATASA), which took place in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State (now Free State) in 1961. Prof Khumalo would go on to conduct many choirs at this festival, often winning the choral competitions. After composing his first work, Prof Khumalo dropped his first two names and started using Mzilikazi exclusively as his signature on his work.

Ma Ngificwa Ukufa was followed by the composition of more than fifty epic choral works. These include the internationally acclaimed musical epic, uShaka kaSenzangakhona (1981/1996), which depicts the life of the Zulu king; and the first Zulu opera, Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu (2002), which was praised for shining a spotlight on the work of the Zulu princess who was a composer and artist (as well as the mother of Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi). In 2005, the late Sibongile Khumalo released an album that included music from this opera. Other compositions include Hallelujah Mdumiseni Nonke; Lala Ngokuthula; Kwadeda Ngendlale, and his 1999 Haya Mntwan’ Omkhulu.

He set several poems to music, ranging from foundational writers like B.W. Vilakazi, to contemporary poets like Prof Themba C. Msimang, whom he met after writing Izibongo ZikaShaka (1996), marking the beginning of a long working relationship in which Msimang supplied the lyrics for many of Prof Khumalo’s compositions.

In 1969, he joined the Wits University’s Department of African Languages as a tutor (during that time, most Black scholars were not recognised as lecturers at the country’s White universities, being handed tutoring or assistant roles instead). Furthering his studies, he earned his PhD in 1987 and worked his way up to becoming the university’s first Black professor of African Languages, as well as its first Black head of the department, retiring in 1998. However, even after his retirement, he continued to serve as an Emeritus Professor of African Languages at the university.

After 1980, Prof Khumalo revived his interest in traditional African music and stopped composing for a while to study the genre, focusing on collecting and arranging Black folk music. He devoted his time to music studies, studying music theory, harmony, singing, counterpoint, form, and composition under the guidance of Charles Norburn, Prof Khabi Mngoma (University of Zululand), and Zandi Casan (Wits University) – all leading figures in music education and performance. He was deeply passionate about folk music traditions as well as the history and culture of the Zulu nation, which explains his compositions uShaka and Princess Magogo ­– both considered landmark productions.

During the dark days of apartheid, those in the arts contributed to the liberation movement by depicting Black peoples’ struggle through various creative mediums, including choral compositions. Prof Khumalo was no different, finding ways to highlight the injustices and the realities of what Black people were going through under the apartheid system in his work. When Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison in February 1990, Prof Khumalo wrote the song, Insizw’endala (The old chap), about Mandela.

Prof Khumalo has been accorded many accolades. His opera, Princess Magogo, is accredited as being the first by a Black South African. In November 1983, a special music festival was held in homage to his exceptional compositions and his celebration of isiZulu in many of his works by the Amazwi kaZulu Choir. In 1985, he won the African Bank Tenth Anniversary Songwriter Contest for the song Isibaya Esikhulu Se-Afrika. In 1986, he wrote Intonga YoSindiso for Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s enthronement, one of the many songs he was commissioned to write for high-profile occasions.

In 1995, Prof Khumalo had the honour of leading the Anthem Committee which was tasked with creating South Africa’s post-apartheid national anthem at the request of then-President Mandela. He strongly advocated for Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika to be the basis for the new anthem (which was accepted in 1997), coming up with the idea to merge the new and old anthems in the name of reconciliation. In 1999, he was conferred the Order of the Star of South Africa (which was at the time the country’s highest civilian award) for his outstanding contributions to the country from former President Mandela.

His compositions won numerous awards and performances of his major works gained him international recognition in Europe and the United States of America (USA). This was especially remarkable given he had no formal qualifications in music and composed entirely in tonic sol-fa, as opposed to staff notation.

In 2003, he was bestowed the Arts & Culture Trust (ACT) Lifetime Achievement Award, which he again received in 2007, this time from the M-Net Literary Awards in recognition of his service to African literature. Furthermore, a piano concerto composed by Bongani Ndodana-Breen called, Mzilikazi: Emhlabeni, was held in his honour in 2012. In 2018, a conference was held at UNISA titled, The Intellectual Legacy of Professor James Steven Mzilikazi Khumalo, as an attempt to bring public attention to the iconic composer.

Prof Khumalo pioneered the publication of three volumes of South Africa Sings, which profiled the works of the country’s Black choral composers. His article, Leftward Ho! In Zulu Tonology, published in the South African Journal of African Languages (1990), earned him the Via Afrika Prize for Linguistic Studies. He was highly critical of the colonial nature of linguistics studies in South Africa and abroad and actively spoke out against this in published papers that focused on the rising de-colonial movement in academia. Through his efforts as a teacher and mentor, the study of African languages began to transform as indigenous language speakers were increasingly being included in these studies.

In 2015, Wits University awarded an honorary doctorate to Prof Khumalo, and he was bestowed the same honour by UNISA, the University of Zululand, the University of Fort Hare, as well as Stellenbosch University. In addition to his Honorary Research Fellow at Wits University’s School of Music, he was the vice-chairperson of the board of directors of the Southern African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO), and he served on the Music Committee of the National Arts Council (NAC).

Together with his SAMRO colleague and popular classical music conductor, Richard Cock, as well as Danny Pooe, also a classical music conductor, Prof Khumalo created the Sowetan Nation Building Massed Choir Festival to showcase and celebrate the singing abilities of African people, becoming one of the premiere events for emerging singers and soloists. It was through this platform that Prof Khumalo and Cock first pioneered the innovative system of dual notation (tonic sol-fa with staff notation) that has since become a staple in South Africa.   

He often served as an adjudicator of major choral compositions and was conductor and director of the Soweto Songsters, the Central Division Songsters of the Salvation Army. The group performed all over the world, namely in Britain, Israel, and Norway.

After a long battle with diabetes, Prof James Steven Mzilikazi Khumalo died on 22 June 2021, just two days after his 89th birthday. Two days later, his wife, Rose, also died following a short illness. The two were married in January 1958 and had four children together.

A celebrated composer of choral and traditional music, Prof Khumalo leaves behind a rich legacy as one of the most widely performed of all South African composers. He played a central role in transforming and growing the country’s choral tradition and remained committed to inspiring, uplifting, mentoring and developing others through his work as a leading choral composer and adjudicator.

Speaking about his passion for music, his son, Diliza Khumalo, shared:

           He had one mission and that was to compose music for the people to sing and enjoy (Khumalo Jnr in De Beer Necessities, 2018).

Prof Khumalo’s music continues to feature prominently in music festivals and competitions in South Africa as well as abroad.

*Or Stephen


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