Professor Keorapetse William Kgositsile was a poet above par, social justice activist, preserver of African intellectualism, committed mentor and teacher with indigenous aesthetic at the centre of knowledge. He was an ardent jazz lover and a gentle soul with a disarming smile, humble yet wealthily lived his life.
An omelette cannot be unscrambled.
Not even then one prepared in the crucible of 19th century
sordid European design
When Europe cut up this continent into little
pockets of its imperialist want and greed it was
not for aesthetic reasons, nor was it in the service
of any African interest, intent, or purpose.
-No Serenity Here (2008)
When an African literary giant such as Keorapetse William “Bra Willie” Kgositsile’s soul departs from earth, it inspires many whose lives he had touched, to take to their tools of their trades and bear testimony to the pieces of the mosaic that was his life. Artists took to canvass with oil, musicians beat drums and blew horns, writers put pen to paper to celebrate his contributions to humanity and as evidence to a life well lived.
Mandla Langa, Bra Willie’s protégé, described Kgositsile thus:
“I’d always marvelled at how Bra Willie touched people. He seemed to cultivate curiosity without saying a word, deepening the mystique surrounding himself with a mere look while disarming everyone within range with his trademark smile. He had a way of drawing people in, making even total strangers feel as if they had a special kinship … Stubborn, compensating for his slight stature with a razor-sharp intelligence to thwart bullies, Kgositsile learnt early to trust his own instincts. He spoke with tenderness about his mother Galekgobe, who instilled in him integrity and a total allergy to dishonesty and injustice. His mother’s name could be the key to Kgositsile’s journey into writing poetry, for it means something that cannot be eroded, incorruptible.”
Langa continues to write that Kgositsile’s “poems are a meditation on music, jazz, the loyalty of artists who stuck to their craft and honed it and died knowing they had paid homage to what is best in humankind.”
He describes him as: “one of our country’s best craftspeople. From them they will glean nuances of Pablo Neruda, Aimé Césaire, our own oral tradition and, more importantly, an integrity that shines through from beginning to end.”
Of service to humanity
At the funeral, the ANC President and Deputy President of South Africa Cyril Ramaphosa gave a captivating and praiseworthy Eulogy: “Today we pay homage to an extraordinary South African who devoted his life to the service of humanity. Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, fondly called ‘Bra Willie’, was an internationally acclaimed poet and an activist who leaves a great legacy in both our cultural and political landscapes.
He was a multidimensional individual whose activism transcended different realms of human endeavour. Today, we celebrate the life of a poet, a teacher, a father, a husband, an MK combatant, an ANC cadre, a servant of the people and a consummate intellectual.
We celebrate the life of a selfless man who contributed immensely to the development of his society. He was a poet who knew that as a cultural worker he had a responsibility to employ his voice to speak against the injustices of the world.”
In his statement, Gauteng Premier David Makhura referred to Professor Kgositsile as “an Artist Extraordinaire; an accomplished intellectual; a world renowned and one of the most published poets whose work spanned a period of five decades. He truly was a man of letters who used his pen, voice and intellect as potent weapons during his lifelong struggle against apartheid, colonialism and all forms of injustice.”
His early life
He was born in 1938 to Galekgobe, a woman whose moral compass was anchored on integrity, a value that would be inculcated very early on in Bra Willie’s moral fibre.
When he was old enough, he attended Madibane High School in Soweto in the 50s, an alma mater to the likes of influential figures such as Aggrey Klaaste (editor of The World and Sowetan), Stanley Motjuwadi (journalist) and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, and here he took to writing stories.
In his family boredom was never entertained leading him to find comfort in reading, picking up literature from Charles Dickens to D.H.Lawrence and Poet Pablo Neruda. Even though it was difficult during apartheid to find books by Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, Bra Willie found a way.
After high school he did menial jobs before joining and writing for The New Age, which was edited by Ruth First, who was assassinated in Mozambique by apartheid spy Craig Williamson after opening a letter bomb. When the pressure mounted from the Apartheid government, and The New Age was clamped down, the ANC send him to exile in Dar es Salem, Tanzania via Botswana, where he ended up writing for Spearhead Magazine.
Exiled in America
Kgositsile would arrive in the United States of America (USA) in 1962 on a scholarship and studied at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania University, University of New Hampshire and Columbia University. He graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.
He was his prime when he decided that Africa was beckoning and needed a teacher such as himself. In 1975 he moved back to Tanzania to teach at the University of Dar es Salem. Hehad published his first collection of poems, Spirits Unchained. It was well received and he was awarded the Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Award.
In 1971, he published his most influential collection My Name is Afrika, which established him as a leading African poet. Kgositsile wrote extensively about the American jazz scene. He also founded the Black Arts Theatre in Harlem. In 1974 he founded the African Literature Association together with Es’kia Mphahlele, Dennis Brutus, Daniel Kunene and Mazizi Kunene among others.
Kgositsile would come home post collapse of apartheid, in 1990, and worked with the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW). The result was When the Clouds Clear, a collection of poems from his earlier works on home ground. He would later serve a stint as adviser to three ministers of arts and culture — his longtime friend Pallo Jordan, Lulu Xingwana and Paul Mashatile.
And unlike several of his former exile friends who became social and political commentators in post-apartheid SA, his voice of wisdom was conspicuous by its absence. He had chosen to use the might of his pen, to a point where his long commitment to the arts would earn him the honour as a poet laureate in 2006.
In 2008, Kgositsile was awarded the national Order of Ikhamanga Silver(OIS), “for excellent achievements in the field of literature and using these exceptional talents to expose the evils of the system of apartheid to the world.” He had earlier also been recognised for many literary awards such as the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, the Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award, the Conrad Kent Rivers Memorial Poetry Award, the Herman Charles Bosman Prize. Even with these accolades “Bra Willie” remained humble to the end, when he passed on on January 3, 2018.
He is survived by his wife Baby Dorcas Kgositsile and seven children and grandchildren.
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