South African poet laureate, political activist and academic Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile passed away on 3 January 2018 after a short illness. He was 79. Kgositsile became South Africa’s first poet laureate in 2006.
Born in Johannesburg in 1938, Kgositsile fell in love with literature and poetry at a young age, discovering the works of American poet and novelist Langston Hughes, and English writers Charles Dickens and DH Lawrence while still at school.
On completing his schooling, he worked as a journalist and poet at the influential independent newspaper New Age; it closed in 1963 following its banning by the apartheid government. Kgositsile’s first original poems were lyrical and politically charged, attacking the apartheid government. While he was interested in writing long-form fiction, he felt poetry had an urgency and an anger that could inspire young people.
The rhythms and structures of his poetry, particularly the scathing Dawn, were also influenced by African jazz tempos and the early American Beat Generation stream-of-consciousness aesthetic.
A poet in exile
A lifelong member of the ANC, Kgositsile’s political outspokenness in his poetry and activism drew the attention of the apartheid government and he was soon forced into exile, first to Tanzania and then to the United States. In the latter, he studied literature and creative writing at a number of prestigious universities, including Columbia University. Kgositsile published his first poetry collection, titled Spirits Unchained, in 1969.
After graduating with a Master’s degree in fine arts, Kgositsile remained at Columbia where he began his teaching career. He also became a regular performer on New York’s spoken word circuit in the coffee shops and community centres of Greenwich Village and Harlem.
While in New York, Kgositsile formed friendships with some of the leading jazz musicians and political activists of the era, including Nina Simone, Stokely Carmichael and Harry Belafonte. He considered the intertwining of jazz, politics and poetry an effective way to communicate the black experience, whether that be in Africa or the US, and as a way to escape the constrictions of a white-influenced cultural aesthetic.
Elaborating on this idea in 1985, Kgositsile said: “There is nothing like art – in the oppressor’s sense of art. There is only movement. Force. Creative power. The walk of Sophiatown tsotsi or my Harlem brother on Lenox Avenue. Field Hollers. The Blues. A Trane riff. Marvin Gaye or mbaqanga. Anguished happiness. Creative power, in whatever form it is released, moves like the dancer’s muscles.”
He also used theatre and performance as a way to inspire revolutionary thought and political debate. He was one of the founders of the Black Arts Theatre in Harlem in the early 1970s, which brought together African and African-American poets, writers and artists. It offered them a platform to collaborate and formulate a modern black culture movement.
Return to Africa
In 1975, Kgositsile returned to Africa, teaching writing and poetry at the University of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania. He married fellow exile Baleka Mbete in 1978, and helped found the ANC-in-exile’s education and culture departments. Later, in a democratic South Africa, Mbete became the Speaker of the National Assembly and served as deputy president of the country for a short period.
Kgositsile spent the 1980s teaching at schools and universities around Africa, including in Kenya and Botswana. In 1990, before returning to South Africa, he published his sixth collection of poetry, titled When the Clouds Clear. It was his first collection to be published in his country of birth.
Returning to democratic South Africa
On his return home, the poet became an outspoken cultural activist, particularly as the vice-president of the Congress of South African Writers. He helped to foster young creative minds through the embracing of the black African voice. He was a fierce critic of the newly elected ANC government, which, he felt, had forgotten the important roles that art and artists played in the struggle against apartheid and their roles in voicing the hopes of a new, democratic country.
During the 1990s, Kgositsile returned to the US as an honourary professor at a number of the universities where he had studied as a young man. He married for the third time, to respected US law professor Cheryl Harris. In 1994, they had a son (Kgositsile’s third child), Thebe Neruda Kgositsile. He went on to become an acclaimed hip-hop star known as Earl Sweatshirt. Kgositsile and Harris separated eight years later.
In the last decade of his life, Kgositsile remained active as a connection between politics and the arts.
In 2013, he was made director of the South African Department of Arts and Culture, and was a committee member of the South Africa / China People’s Friendship Association, which helped to form cultural relationships between the two countries.
Kgositsile won the Herman Charles Bosman literary prize and the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize (Brooks was a former US poet laureate). He was also awarded the South African National Order of Ikhamanga Silver for achievements and contributions to South African literature. Kgositsile published more than ten collections of poetry and writings in his lifetime.
In his final years, he became a prominent fixture on the South African literary festival circuit, mentoring a new generation of writers at events such as the Jozi Book Fair, Abantu Book Festival and the InZync Poetry festival. Kgositsile was working as a cultural adviser in the office of Gauteng ANC provincial chairperson Paul Mashatile when he died.
Reaction to the death of Keorapetse Kgositsile
Following his death, South Africans expressed their appreciation for Kgositsile’s life and work in contributing to South African culture.
President Jacob Zuma called him a South African ambassador. In his statement, the president said: “Today our country mourns the sad passing of one of the giants of our liberation struggle, who was renowned for his accomplishment as well in the education, arts and culture sectors. Kgositsile was highly regarded even beyond the borders of our country and was a celebrated arts intellectual in the continent. We extend our deepest condolences to the family. May his soul rest in peace.”
Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa called Kgositsile South Africa’s most influential and exceptional poet, one whose works would never be forgotten.
Parliament also issued a statement, calling the poet a champion for freedom, whose legacy would inspire future generations to use culture to develop South Africa. “Professor Kgositsile… distinguished himself as an academic, a poet par excellence, and a champion for freedom and social justice throughout his life in South Africa [and] while in exile in many countries of the world and on his return home. Through his sharp and progressive pen, he contributed [to] cutting open the oppressive blanket of the apartheid system to keep the liberation spirit burning in the country and abroad.”
Kgositsile is survived by his wife, seven children and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have yet to be announced.
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