Some hours after ringing in the new year, I received a message from a friend. The poet and friend to many writers of my generation, Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, was in hospital. Two days later, I got another message. The man writers and non-writers alike called Bra Willie was now a literary ancestor. I had last seen him at the Abantu Book Festival, where I sat and chatted with him, Mandla Langa and Sindiwe Magona. As we chatted, photographer Andrew Tshabangu came and took a photograph. Perhaps that’s why my memories of him are less an uninterrupted movie and more of a collection of snapshots.
Accra 2008. Bra Willie, the South African national poet laureate and then advisor to the minister of arts and culture, is leading a South African delegation of eight writers to the Pan African Literary Festival. In the heat of Accra one afternoon, a man is hiking on the side of the road. Bra Willie asks the driver to stop for him. We give the stranger a lift. He is thankful that we gave him a lift and, as a thank you, we all get a medicine he is selling, a panacea for all ills in small 10ml bottles that looks and smells like palm oil.
Bra Willie, feeling chesty, asks whether this medicine can cure a cold. Of course, our friend says before we drop him off. Just rub it on your forehead and chest and you will be as right as rain. In the morning Bra Willie comes down to breakfast and says: “Our friend’s medicine did not work.” We tease him as we make plans to take him to a pharmacy. Bra Willie, until the last conversation I had with him, had the childlike generosity of thinking the best of people unless and until they proved him wrong.
Grahamstown 2011. Siphiwo Mahala and a few other people are at a library in Joza. Bra Willie is there in his official capacity to make a short speech as the ministry of arts and culture donates some books. The bureaucrat from the municipality makes a speech on the importance of reading and then calls upon the advisor to the minister of arts and culture, Professor Kgositsile Mbete! Mahala and I are horrified by this faux pas.
Bra Willie walks upfront, adjusts the microphone and smilingly and graciously makes his speech. He never corrects the official about his name.
Johannesburg 2008. We are invited by Auntie Baby, Bra Willie’s wife, to his 70th birthday celebration. Among those there to celebrate with him: politicians, musicians, writers, business people. All of them different ages. A disparate group all brought together by genuine love for a small man with a giant personality. You can hear how honoured they feel, how much love they have as they all lustfully sing Happy Birthday to him. And you can see how touched he is when he sheds a few tears. A man who was not ashamed to show emotion.
On Facebook, poet Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, hurting as much as we all did, asked: “What will become of us without him?”
I answered: “We will live on and continue to be supportive of each other and hold the hands of those coming after us as he did with us and as he would have wanted us to do. We will, when we want to raise our voices in anger against each other, remember how gentle he was even when admonishing, and critique each other in love.
“And we will fight so that the humanities are not relegated to the dustbin of academia as some within the political leadership seem to think should happen, because we know what his stance was on a people without art. Importantly, we will write. Just like every last poet and novelist and playwright and filmmaker and musician he inspired. We will write on.”
Thank you, Bra Willie, for holding our collective hands. We will miss you.