Keorapetse "Willie" Kgositsile (1938 - 2018)
By Brian Filling
Keorapetse was known as Bra Willie by his friends and comrades. He was a South African poet and member of the African National Congress and spent 29 years in exile during apartheid in other African countries and in the United States. He was inaugurated as South Africa's National Poet Laureate in 2006.
On his death, South African Minister of Arts and Culture, Nathi Mthewhwa, wrote, “The nation has lost a revolutionary mind and a major asset in our cultural landscape. His incisive mind and humble personality will be sorely missed.”
Kgositsile’s poetry addressed themes of solidarity, displacement and anti-colonialism. His poems No Serenity Here and Anguish Longer Than Sorrow are fine examples. In post-apartheid South Africa he did not flinch from criticising those in powerful positions if he thought they were abusing their positions or taking the liberation struggle in a wrong direction.
Willie was born in Johannesburg and attended Madibane High School. He was able (with some difficulty) to find books by Langston Hughes and Richard Wright and he began to write. On leaving school after a number of odd jobs he found employment as a journalist with New Age, a weekly that had been serially banned by the racist regime. It had first been known as The Guardian until it was banned in 1952. It re-appeared as The Clarion, retained that title until 1953 when it was banned only to re-emerge as Advance which was published until mid-1955 giving way to New Age.
New Age under the editorship of Ruth First, who was later (1982) assassinated in Mozambique by the apartheid regime, and an editorial team including Brian Bunting, Govan Mbeki and MP Naicker, initiated Willie Kgositsile into the craft of journalism. As well as reporting, Willie contributed poems to the journal. Pallo Jordan, Minister of Arts and Culture, in his speech at the inauguration of Kgositsile as South African Poet Laureate, commented on this period of Willie’s life, saying, “I have no doubt that it was that rigorous apprenticeship that moulded him into the gifted wordsmith he matured into in later years.” [I]
In 1961, under mounting pressure from the apartheid regime Kgositsile was urged by the ANC to leave the country. He went initially to Tanzania to write for Spearhead magazine, edited by Frene Ginwala, later Speaker in the South African Parliament after the end of apartheid.
Pallo Jordan stated, “It is testimony to the prescience of and foresight of the editor and her team that many of the issues of an African renaissance, African economic independence and political unity that appear on the continent’s current agenda were flagged in Spearhead as early as 1962 and 1963.” [ii]
EXILE IN THE UNITED STATES
In 1962 he was sent to the United States on a scholarship where he studied at a series of universities beginning with Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he "spent a lot of time in the library trying to read as much black literature as I could lay my hands on."
After studying at the University of West Hampshire and The New School for Social Research he entered the Master of Fine Arts programme in creative writing at Columbia University. At the same time, he published his first collection of poems, Spirits Unchained. The collection was well received, and he was given a Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award and a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Award.
He graduated from Columbia in 1971, and remained in New York, teaching and giving his characteristically dynamic readings in clubs and as part of the Uptown Black Arts Movement. Kgositsile's influential collection, My Name is Afrika, was published in that year and included an introduction to the book by Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black author to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize. This collection established Kgositsile as a leading African-American poet.
The Last Poets, a group of revolutionary African-American poets, took their name from one of his poems. The Last Poets included several groups of poets and musicians who arose from the late 1960s African-American civil rights movement. The Last Poets were one of the earliest influences on hip-hop music. Critic Jason Ankeny wrote: "With their politically charged raps, taut rhythms, and dedication to raising African-American consciousness, the Last Poets almost single-handedly laid the groundwork for the emergence of hip-hop." [iii]
Kgositsile’s first son, Thebe Neruda Kgositsile (given his middle name after the poet Pablo Neruda), was with Cheryl Harris, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Thebe is better known as a very successful hip hop artist under the stage name Earl Sweatshirt.
Kgositsile lived in exile in the United States from 1962 until 1975. He made an extensive study of African-American literature and culture, becoming particularly interested in jazz. During the 1970s he was a central figure among African-American poets, encouraging interest in Africa as well as the practice of poetry as a performance art; he was well known for his readings in New York City jazz clubs.
His poems combine lyricism with a call to arms, as in these lines from Dawn:
Remember in baton boot and bullet ritual
The bloodhounds of Monster Vorster wrote
SOWETO over the belly of my land
with the indelible blood of infants
So the young are no longer young
Not that they demand a hasty death
As he said later, "In a situation of oppression, there are no choices beyond didactic writing: either you are a tool of oppression or an instrument of liberation."
Jazz was particularly important to Kgositsile's sense of black American culture and his own place in it. He saw John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, B. B. King and many others in the jazz clubs of New York, and wrote to them and of them in his poems. Jazz was crucial to Kgositsile's ideas including his sense of a worldwide African diaspora united by an ear for a certain quintessentially black sound. His collection, This Way I Salute You, is dedicated to these jazz artists and others.
Kgositsile also became active in theatre while in New York, founding the Black Arts Theatre in Harlem. He saw black theatre as a fundamentally revolutionary activity, whose ambition must be the destruction of the ingrained habits of thought responsible for perceptions of black people both by white people and by themselves. He wrote: “We will be destroying the symbols which have facilitated our captivity. We will be creating and establishing symbols to facilitate our necessary and constant beginning.”
The Black Arts Theatre was part of a larger project aimed at the creation of a literary black voice unafraid to be militant.
RETURN TO AFRICA
In 1975, Kgositsile returned to Africa and took up a teaching position at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. In 1978, he married another ANC exile, Baleka Mbete, who was also living in Tanzania. She became Secretary-General of the ANC’s Women’s League and is currently the Speaker of the South African Parliament. They divorced in 1992.
Willie Kgositsile was one of the founders of the ANC’s Department of Education in 1977 and its Department of Arts and Culture in 1983; he became Deputy Secretary in 1987. Kgositsile taught at several schools in different parts of Africa, including Kenya, Botswana and Zambia.
Throughout this period, of course, he was banned in South Africa, but in 1990 the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW), decided to attempt a publication within the country. The successful result was When the Clouds Clear, a collection of poems from other volumes, which was Kgositsile's first book to be available in his native country.
END OF EXILE
In July 1990, after 29 years in exile, Kgositsile returned to South Africa. He arrived in a country wholly different from the one he had left, transformed by the beginning of the end of apartheid and the release and later the political triumph of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. In 1990, however, it was still apartheid and a place of great conflict as the regime tried to hold on to power.
In a 1991 essay, Crossing Borders Without Leaving, Kgostitsile describes his first trip back to Johannesburg, where he was sponsored by COSAW: "Here are my colleagues and hosts. Can you deal with that? Hosts! In my own country." He added, "there are no memories here. The streets of Johannesburg cannot claim me. I cannot claim them either."
KIND OF HERO
He returned to the country as a kind of hero to young black writers and activists: “Usually, when we met, there would be a little amused giggle or mischievous grin from them as we shook hands and hugged or kissed, depending on the gender. When I would want to find out what the joke was so that we could share it if I also found it funny, one or several of them would recite some of my work, complete with the sound of my voice to the degree that had I heard the recitation without seeing who was reciting, I would probably have said, "Wonder when I recorded that."
Bra Willie was immediately back into politics and cultural activism. He became Special Adviser to the Minister of Arts and Culture and joined the editorial board of This Day newspaper in South Africa
Kgositsile returned to the United States several times, including for a visiting professorship at the New School.
Keorapetse Kgositsile played a very important role in the liberation struggle and in the development of post-apartheid South Africa. We, in the international solidarity movement, are well aware of his role and are grateful for having worked with him in the struggle against apartheid and in seeking to overcome the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. To have known and worked with Comrade Kgositsile was a great privilege.
“Bra Willie” was a frequent visitor to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where he was highly regarded. He often read some of his poetry alongside some new, young and emerging South African writers. He was always modest and encouraged these young writers in their development and in speaking to international audiences. I spent many interesting hours in conversation with Willie during his visits to Scotland.
In 2004, on the 10th anniversary of the new South Africa, he participated in a writer’s conference, “Exiles Within”, at Glasgow University. One of the seminars, which I chaired, was a fascinating discussion with the Scottish writer and Booker Prize winner, Jim Kelman, and Bra Willie. We all had a love and admiration for Alex La Guma, and his writings were the inspiration for the discussion on the relationship between writers and politics. Willie was insightful, thoughtful and inspirational during the discussion, as he was generally in life.
On another of his visits to Scotland I took Willie on the “Mandela Walk”, the places that Nelson Mandela had been in Glasgow when he came in 1993 to receive the Freedoms of nine UK cities. As an additional part of the walk I took Willie to the statue of Dolores Ibárruri (La Pasionaria), leader of the Spanish Republicans. The statue is dedicated to those from Scotland who fought for the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Willie was very moved by the statue and what its inscription, La Pasionaria’s words, ”Better to die on your feet than live forever on your knees.”
In 2006 he was inaugurated as South Africa’s national Poet Laureate.
In 2009 Bra Willie was part of the Beyond Words UK tour that also featured South African poets Don Mattera, Lesego Rampolokeng, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers and Lebo Mashile.
The many literary awards he received include the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, the Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award, the Conrad Kent Rivers Memorial Poetry Award, the Herman Charles Bosman Prize.
In 2008, Kgositsile was awarded the South African national Order of Ikhamamga Silver, "For excellent achievements in the field of literature and using these exceptional talents to expose the evils of the system of apartheid to the world."
After a short illness, Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile died aged 79 on 3 January 2018 in Johannesburg.
(Examples of Willie's work referred to in this article are published in issue 30 of The Socialist Correspondent - Poems by Keorapetse "Willie" Kogositsile)
[i] Pallo Jordan, Speech at the Inauguration of Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile as Poet Laureate, Bloemfontein, December 2006.
[iii] Jason Ankeny: https://www.allmusic.com/artist/the-last-poets-mn0000090018/biography