Beauty in struggle

In tune: In this poster by artist Thami Mnyele for Jonas Gwangwa’s Shakawe ensemble, Keorapetse Kgositsile is shown front left, reading his poems, as he often did at Shakawe concerts (Thami Mnyele)

In tune: In this poster by artist Thami Mnyele for Jonas Gwangwa’s Shakawe ensemble, Keorapetse Kgositsile is shown front left, reading his poems, as he often did at Shakawe concerts (Thami Mnyele)

Rhythm it is we

walk to against the evil

of monsters who try to kill the Spirit

it is the power of this song

that colours our every act

as we move from the oppressor-made gutter 

— from Spirits Unchained, 1969

Spirits Unchained was Professor Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile’s first published poetry collection, and those lines express as clearly as anything he wrote subsequently his unbounded aesthetic, which in every line rejected hegemonic notions that art is necessarily tainted by political struggle and that struggle has no concern for beauty.

The way Bra Willie’s poetry chose — joyously and defiantly — to assert beauty and love was through lyrics of struggle. Since 1994, the idea of art as a commodity has been pushed to the fore in South Africa: young poets and painters are urged to “brand” and “market” their “products”. This has bullied out of the discourse alternative visions of creativity: those held by artists who had learnt culture in struggle — in the words of visual artist Sydney Selepe, speaking in 2001: “When I was a kid, if it was not political, it was not art.”

Much as he asserted beauty, Bra Willie was also enthralled by it, particularly by what he found in jazz.

I first met him through the Medu Art Ensemble in Botswana in the early 1980s. A new member myself, hoping my small experience of promoting jazz gigs in London might be useful to the Medu music unit, I dropped in on an afternoon rehearsal for Shakawe, the outfit led by Jonas Gwangwa. In the yard of the home where they worked, Bra Willie was also there, listening. “I teach at the university”, he introduced himself, “and I try to write …”

That wasn’t false modesty, although it might have been read as such from a poet who was highly acclaimed internationally, and who had been, with Amiri Baraka, an influential founding participant in the Harlem Black Arts Movement.

For Bra Willie, you must always try when writing. Noble sentiments do not excuse slipshod skill — indeed, the more important the message, the more it is imperative to strive for excellence in the writing too. (I once showed him one of my attempts at poetry. He was influential in recommending I stick with prose.)

There’s a Thami Mnyele poster for Shakawe — Mnyele was another who often dropped by, to listen and sketch — that captures Kgositsile’s relationship with the music. It collages images of artists who had worked with the band, from Culture and Resistance guest saxophonist Wilson “Kingforce” Silgee and Motswana lead guitarist Bonjo Kepedile to trumpeter Dennis Mpale sitting, noodling away at ideas for a solo, on a bench in that very same dusty yard. Front left is Kgositsile, reading aloud from a sheaf of handwritten papers, as he often did at Shakawe concerts.

Mnyele has perfectly caught the poet’s expression: simultaneously thoughtful, frowning at his page (he often forgot to wear his spectacles), but exhilarated as he made the rhythms of his words part of a collective initiative to rally spirits, spread knowledge, and stir dancing feet.

You might invoke synaesthesia, as some scholars have done, to illustrate how Bra Willie’s poetry managed to resonate in so many ways: at once intellectual, sonic, rhythmic and tactile.

You might suggest that quality was simply another manifestation of the poet’s strategic refusal to acknowledge those (along with many other) manmade boundaries of perception. Or you might track it back to an upbringing in which his grandmother Madikeledi was particularly influential, deep-rooted in Setswana tradition, where the music was the dance, was the lyric, was the occasion, was the spirit.

It came from all those places and more. It communicated brilliantly, making his messages accessible and infectious for people in those audiences at Gaborone’s Woodpecker who might never before have thought of themselves as poetry buffs; not just the comrades-in-exile but others who came simply to socialise — glamorous bar butterflies, wannabe Michael Jacksons, car salesmen on a night out. And probably the odd apartheid secret policeman too — South Africa was, after all, just across the river.

That proximity made Botswana “a dangerous place to live” (as the poet’s 1974 book termed it), something that reached its horrific culmination on June 14 1985 when the South African army raided, murdering a dozen people, including Mnyele — some with real or imagined ties to the struggle and some (including children) who were what aggressors term collateral damage.

I had lived in the house fingered by the apartheid regime as the nerve-centre of the imaginary “Transvaal Suicide Squad”: we typed the Medu Newsletter in the front room. Living with constant danger was scarring, as Bra Willie’s Red Song recounted:

Horror and terror are not strangers

When Duma no older than six years

Looks at shoeprints in the yard

And says: Papa who has been here

Rrangwane Uncle Thami Uncle Tim Uncle George

And you do not have shoes like this

Mama why did you leave

The window open

The child knows and tells

Something about the life

We live

Integral to Medu’s celebration of creative solidarity were those harsher energies: the necessity of confronting and actively fighting an evil system. Jazz spoke of one important aspect of that solidarity — the roots and imperative to fight back shared with African-Americans:

even here where wood

mates with skin on wax

to make memory to place us

even in this hideous place

(For Art Blakey)

Jazz also enacted narratives of the suppressed history of South Africa:

Isn’t sound continuity

isn’t sound memory

loving care caress or rage

sticking our shattered or scattered pieces together?

(For Bra Ntemi)

As well as poetry, Kgositsile also wrote powerful prose, and in Gaborone contributed a feature on the history of pennywhistle music, “Whistling for pennies”, to the Botswana Guardian, destroying with a few deft cuts of his pen another reductive stereotype: “Mbaqanga, dubbed kwela by white critics who hear the music as nothing more than an expression of the noisy happiness of simple-minded township natives and a goldmine for recording companies. […] No matter what your turn of mind the lyricism and sometimes bluesy anguished happiness of this seemingly casual music touches your sensibility … sometimes robust, at times whirling, always brutally moving and demanding [it] has all the ingredients of township life.”

Bra Willie, who was named South Africa’s poet laureate in 2006, had brought all these qualities and concerns back home with him after 28 years of exile. I’d meet him — at readings, book launches, panel discussions, just walking in the mall — and he was still, always, fiercely engaged with the world: as articulate and passionate about what some “idiot newspaper” had said about the death of Fidel Castro or the geopolitics of China as about hypocrisies and broken promises closer to home.

The last time we met was as he prepared to launch the collection he and publisher Mothobi Mutloatse had edited of the essays of Pallo Jordan. “We need thinkers [like Jordan],” he told journalist Charl Blignaut, “to keep people on their toes, in case they get too relaxed and forget that they need to be answerable.”

In debates, his analysis remained grounded in revolutionary materialism. He had no patience, for example, with those who romanticised pre-colonial Africa as a place of kings and queens: “Those kingdoms were often patriarchal, feudal dictatorships,” he chided. He wholeheartedly supported #FeesMustFall, “but do not frame the right to education as important only for self-advancement”.

One of his last public readings was at the ANC veterans’ and stalwarts’ gathering in November, where he moved listeners to tears with an elegy to lost hope. Because sometimes his observations of post-liberation South Africa broke his heart. That was reflected in the edgy jaggedness of many of the lines he was now writing.

South Africa in the 2000s remained a dangerous place to live; there was, as his 2009 anti-xenophobia poem put it, No Serenity Here:

In my language there is no word for citizen…

That word came to us as part of the package that contained the bible and the rifle: […] the night will not own any of this stench

of betrayal which has desecrated our national anthem

so do not tell me of NEPAD or AU

do not tell me of SADC

and please do not try to say shit about

ubuntu or any other such neurosis of history

again I say, while I still have voice,

remember, always

remember that you are what you do,

past any saying of it

our memories of struggle

refuse to be erased

our memories of struggle

refuse to die

“You are what you do, past any saying of it.” Poets are often portrayed as individualists raging against the crowd. Bra Willie was never that. His prophetic iconoclasm drew its authenticity from vibrant, living roots in a community of comrades that stretched across the world fighting capitalism and imperialism.

The best way to remember him, whether you are a poet or not, would be to pick up that spear.

Hamba kahle.

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