Unchained spirit of Bra Willie

OBITUARY: KEORAPETSE KGOSITSILE 1938-2018

South Africa’s poet laureate, Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile died in Johannesburg this week aged 79. The poet, activist and iconoclast had been admitted to Milpark Hospital in Parktown, and died after a short illness.

Kgositsile will be remembered for his commitment to the longer struggles he encountered in his life. This was captured well by the statement issued by the office of the president: “Through his sharp and progressive pen‚ he contributed in cutting open the oppressive blanket of the apartheid system to keep the liberation spirit burning in the country and abroad.”

Kgositsile was at the height of his powers as a writer during his exile in the United States from 1962 until 1975. There, while teaching at Columbia University, he cofounded the Black Arts Theatre in Harlem.

He saw black theatre as a key part of the struggle. As he wrote at the time: “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 phrase captures his lifelong attitude: constantly active and productive. Just a month ago the age-bitten but lively poet was in Soweto speaking and reading at the Abantu Book Festival, a literary initiative by young black writers challenging the stronghold of corporate publishers and expanding access in working-class areas to books written by black writers.

It’s the kind of project that would have reminded him of his own endeavours in building bridges between the South African struggle and those of African-American people. Kgositsile saw all people’s struggles for freedom as one united human project.

Inspired in part by Che Guevara’s anti-imperialist call echoing the 19th-century Cuban revolutionary José Marti, “Now is the time of the furnaces, and only light should be seen”, Kgositsile wrote a poem in which he saw himself “living in the last era of poetry, music and art before guns would take over”. The poem, Towards a Walk in the Sun, packed a fiery last stanza:

The wind you hear is the birth of memory

when the moment hatches in time’s womb

there will be no art talk. The only poem

you will hear will be the spear point pivoted

in the punctured marrow of the villain; the

timeless native son dancing like crazy to

the retrieved rhythms of desire

fading

in-

to

memory

The poem’s vision inspired the name of The Last Poets, credited as being among the founding fathers of hip-hop.

In 1975, Kgositsile moved to Tanzania to take up a post at the University of Dar es Salaam and to do ANC work. In 1978, he married another ANC exile, Baleka Mbete. They would divorce in 1992 after 14 years of marriage, which produced four children. Kgositsile had three other children from other relationships.

He was born in 1938 in Johannes–burg and attended Matibane High School. He wrote poetry and news reports for the New Age, an anti-apartheid publication then edited by Ruth First.

Kgositsile’s books include Spirits Unchained (1969), For Melba (1970), My Name is Afrika (1971), The Pres–ent is a Dangerous Place to Live (1974), Places and Bloodstains (1975), When the Clouds Clear (1990), If I Could Sing (2002) and This Way I Salute You (2004).

In the 1970s, he joined Medu Art Ensemble, which had been initiated by Mongane Wally Serote and others in exile in Botswana, among them Thami Mnyele, Miles Pelo, Mandla Langa, Bachana Mokwena and Gwen Ansell. Together they organised a seminal symposium on culture and resistance in 1982. Central to its mission was to envision the role of arts and culture in a future South Africa. Kgositsile was instrumental in establishing the ANC’s department of education in 1977 and its department of arts and culture in 1983.

He would later serve as an adviser to the minister of arts and culture before retiring in 2014. He received numerous awards, including the National Order of Ikhamanga, silver, for his contribution to literature and the struggle for freedom.

Describing the singular gift that Kgositsile possessed, African-Ameri–can poet Gwendolyn Brooks writes: “I would say that he is a ‘master’, if it were not for my belief that no one ‘masters’ anything, that each finds or makes his candle, then tries to see by the guttering light. Willie has made a good candle. And Willie has good eyes.” — Percy Mabandu

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Percy Mabandu
Percy Mabandu is an art historian and freelance writer based in The city of Tshwane.

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