There are countless people in the South African poetry community whose careers have been nourished by the selfless light of the literary giant Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, both directly and indirectly.
Throughout this period of loss, we honour his legacy — not by measuring the depth of the wound his departure has opened inside us but by recalling our most prized memories of him. This is an obituary, a reflection of a poet, mentor, father figure, friend and poetry grandfather through the eyes of the poets who have reaped from what he has sown.
When Lebo Mashile says: “Bra Willie has played an instrumental part in the wave of South African poetry that has emerged post 1994”, I know that there is no better way to highlight the significance of his work than to call on those who shared a microphone, a laugh, a stage or conversations with him. Those whose names may have appeared below his on an event poster, or sat with him in a poetry workshop, or those who, like me, clenched their teeth and held their breath when he called them by name because they didn’t expect the South African poet laureate to know the younger ones in the poetry circuit. But he did. He was aware.
Mashile attributes her success as a spoken-word artist to the support he showed her throughout the evolution of her career. She was 23 when she met him, an emerging writer overwhelmed by the thought that a poet who was seminal in the diaspora and in South African and African literature saw her as someone who was worthy of being considered a writer. “He supported my career from day one,” she exclaims.
Phillippa Yaa de Villiers takes me back to the first day she met him. The author, poet and co-editor of No Serenity Here, an anthology of African poetry translated into various languages, titled the book after a poem by Bra Willie.
She explains how she knew the sound of his voice before she met the man: “It was Red Song, 1992, sung by Vusi Mahlasela at a show he was doing with Lesego Rampolokeng called The Devil and the Angel or The Angel and the Devil. I heard that sound and it made me want to go and find that poet.”
She spent years searching for Bra Willie, but there was no sign of him. She eventually found him at the Windybrow Theatre where she asked him to teach her how to write poetry. In response, he said: “You’re two hours late for the workshop. If you’re really serious about this, make sure that you’re on time.”
De Villiers adds that the prof valued punctuality, creativity and scholarship. She, like many others, appreciated the energy he gave — his dedication towards younger writers and his patience, if they had the will to take critique.
Writing coach, poet and co-founder of the Likwid Tongue poetry movement Richard “Quaz” Roodt also recalls how he lost his tongue when his nerves got the better of him the day he sat next to Bra Willie at an intergenerational panel discussion held at the Windybrow Theatre about 10 years ago. When all the poems were performed, the prof sought Roodt out to compliment him on his work.
“That was the nature of our relationship for the past 10 to 15 years. He was always helpful and friendly; prescribing books, authors or poems that I should check out. We had all these beautiful conversations that made me feel valuable as a poet because here’s this literary giant who is so revered yet he takes time out to know your name,” says Roodt.
Many poets relate to Bra Willie in a similar vein. Vangile Gantsho calls him a “poetry grandfather” who had zero tolerance for bullshit poetry.
His words, “When you tell a story of a genuine human experience sincerely, all things human respond to it”, serve as a guiding principle for her work.
Though Bra Willie has transcended, we have inherited the life-long lessons he has left behind.
Poet Antonio Lyons says: “It’s really important for a black man — an artist at any stage — to have those mentors, those friends, the guiding lights that believe in things larger than themselves.”
He chronicles a list of ways in which he will remember the prof. “He was giving and nurturing and allowed you to see him and, in turn, allowed you to experience yourself in ways that were tender, loving and open. Anyone who knew him knew that he felt like whatever age you were, he was the same age. He was experientially observational and lived life to the full, a father for poetry. He was always curious about what you’re doing and what is happening to and through you.”
Word N Sound’s first slam champion, Masai Dabula, recalls Bra Willie’s concern about how detached writers are from the language of the people. He said: “If you’re a writer and you live in a certain land, you must be able to speak the language of the people. The language may be English but how you orchestrate the letters to form the words and to form the stanzas is important.”
The co-founder of Botsotso Publishing, Allan Kolski Horwitz, enjoyed Bra Willie’s jazz poetry but says that, although Keorapetse was supportive, he believes the poet wasn’t public enough about his frustration with the department of arts and culture and its failure to promote literature and a culture of reading — that, maybe, he was too loyal to the ANC.
Co-founder of InZync poetry movement Adrian van Wyk says that, inasmuch as Bra Willie defended the ANC, he wasn’t afraid to speak out about the organisation’s wrongdoings. He quotes the prof as saying: “You can’t give something that is rooted in inequality and think that it will work differently just because it has a new name.”
Iain “Ewok” Robinson’s lasting memory of the prof attests to this when he recalls the final night of the Art to the Future festival in Grahamstown, where the younger contingents of poets were lambasting the ANC at the dinner table. Prof was there talking them through our history and “suddenly there was the steel in the man and the stalwart got louder and more serious, emphasising that this organisation, this struggle, this history, is a lot bigger than what you’re feeling right now”.
Some have said Bra Willie’s poetry is far too political but at the Abantu Book Festival on December 9 2017 in Mofolo, Soweto, during the panel discussion titled Not So Youth League, he set the record straight: “I do not ever sit down to write anything political; when I sit down to write, it is to express and to explore who I am and being political is an integral part of that. There is no way it could be left out.”
Jokingly, he added: “When I write poems exploring jazz, music or other art forms, there are no complaints.” The audience burst out laughing and that was my last encounter with him. His own words quantify his existence: “History makes us, on one hand; on the other, we make history.”
Some will remember him for his political contribution, some for his teachings, humility, love and kindness. We mourn him the same. May he rest in the poetry he gave.