Goodbye Bra Willie, and thank you for the words that make a difference

South Africa's poet laureate,  Keorapetse Kgositsile, died on Wednesday after an illustrious career as a poet and activist in America and Africa. The writer says none of the South African literati command the sort of respect that Bra Willie engenders.   /  Sydney Seshibedi
South Africa's poet laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile, died on Wednesday after an illustrious career as a poet and activist in America and Africa. The writer says none of the South African literati command the sort of respect that Bra Willie engenders. / Sydney Seshibedi

Memories of Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938-2017), or Bra Willie, as he was affectionately known, are of a poet who always had a smile on his face, who exuded gentleness, and was soft-spoken.

In his school days, Bra Willie managed to get access to African-American poets Langston Hughes' and Richard Wright's poems. This was no mean feat in apartheid South Africa when schools for African children either didn't have libraries or they were poorly-stocked, and African students were denied access to literature deemed to be "seditious".

Even my "whites-only" school library had no books with African-American poems, still less the apartheid English setwork books.

His first job was working for a 1950s left-wing newspaper, the New Age, which had strong links to the African National Congress.

The apartheid regime banned it in 1962.

That year Kgositsile went into exile in the US. His career flourished in Harlem, New York; he gave numerous readings at African-American jazz clubs, and graduated with a master of fine arts from Columbia University, in New York.

Kgositsile published ten collections of poetry. The first was Spirits Unchained (1969). Perhaps the most influential were My Name is Africa (1971), The Present is a Dangerous Place to Live (1975) and When the Clouds Clear (1990).

In 1975, Kgositsile sacrificed his flourishing career to return to Africa to work for the ANC in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. In 1977 he founded the ANC's department of education in exile, and in 1983 its department of arts and culture. He continued to produce poetry and music, melding African and diasporic poetry influenced by jazz. Willie's impact on a generation of South African left-wing literary activists during the 1970s and 1980s was immense. Tattered photostats of his work passed from hand-to-hand were the samizdat of the oppressed under apartheid, which is how we learnt of his poems.

As soon as apartheid censorship ended in 1990, the Congress of South African Writers brought out a selection of his poems, When the Clouds Clear. Willie returned to South Africa from exile, and was elected vice-presdent of the organisation.

He wrote of the 1976 Soweto generation that revolted against apartheid and the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

South Africa's youth reciprocated this admiration: again and again a youthful poet would recite from memory a Kgositsile poem, mimicking his voice to perfection. They enjoyed doing this to his face as much as in his absence. In today's literary establishment, none of the country's literati command this sort of respect.

He was made South Africa's national poet laureate in 2006, the only person to have been given the honour. Keorapetse won several literary awards, including the Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award and in South Africa the Herman Charles Bosman Prize. In 2008 he accepted the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) for excellent achievements in the field of literature.

He was married to Melba Johnson, and later to Baleka Mbete, a fellow poet and currently Speaker of the National Assembly. They divorced in 1992. Bra Willie, who died on Wednesday, is survived by a spouse and three children.

* The author is a published poet. Source: https://theconversation.com/africa

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