The poet of the people has passed

Comrades, culture stars and poetry lovers around the world were left reeling this week when news broke that Keorapetse Kgositsile had died unexpectedly. The internet was awash with tributes, but many bemoaned the reality that the decolonialist ANC thinker, teacher, activist and literary icon was not fully appreciated at home. Charl Blignaut turns to the younger generation to understand his legacy.

somewhere on this continent

the voice of the ancients warns

that those who shit on the road

will meet flies on their way back

– Keorapetse Kgositsile, No Serenity Here (2008)

“What are we going to do without him?” asks the distraught poet Phillippa Yaa de Villiers. “Especially as a mentor … What are we going to do? I just don’t know.”

It’s a day after news broke that 79-year-old poet and ANC stalwart Professor Keorapetse William “Bra Willie” Kgositsile died in Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg after undergoing surgery for circulatory problems.

“He did everything a national poet laureate could – between politics and art … and the vexatious relationship between the two,” says De Villiers, who co-edited the 2010 collection No Serenity Here, its title drawn from an angry wail of a poem by Kgositsile.

Its opening line, placing xenophobia within the context of colonialism’s construction of African borders, is legendary: “An omelette cannot be unscrambled. Not even the one prepared in the crucible of 19th-century sordid European design.”

Its closing line gathers the “thousand thundering” voices of the dead to yell, in trademark Kgositsile style: “Daar is kak in die land! [The country is in shit!]”

The poet laureate and special adviser to two arts ministers read at the launch of De Villiers’ most recent book at the end of September. He seldom missed occasions where the younger generation were celebrating new work.

On talk radio this week, poet Lebo Mashile, who, like De Villiers, often toured with Kgositsile, said that she wouldn’t have had a career if it wasn’t for his influence.

The writer was someone you were always happy, if a bit nervous, to run into at a book event, with a listening ear and witty tongue, always a sparkle in his eye. On the mic, he delivered his poems slowly in his throaty drawl, gently articulating every word, drawing out sentences loaded with daggers against the injustices of black life.

“He was always trying to bring a collective of voices together, he never wanted to be the only one heard. He made himself available to young people, young poets. And that’s not to say that because he was supportive he wasn’t critical, because he was, but critical in a way that was committed, engaged …” says De Villiers, and her words run out.

At the black Abantu Book Festival in Soweto in December, Kgositsile was celebrated as an honorary elder alongside his close friend, the legendary novelist Sindiwe Magona.

At the time, Abantu founder and novelist Thando Mgqolozana told me: “We need the voices of the radicals who came before us. We need to celebrate them because if their names are not JM Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer, they are not getting this kind of recognition.”

In a session called Not the Youth League, chaired by author Mandla Langa, Kgositsile had the audience eating out of his hand.

“Towards the end, Boet Mandla literally had to shut it down because the people wanted more. Bra Willie was reciting … The people wanted more,” said Mgqolozana this week.

‘Earl Sweatshirt’s father has died’

On Talk Radio 702 this week, Langa expressed the commonly voiced frustration that his friend and ally was not fully recognised in his own country; that his work is not even entrenched in the school syllabus. In his decades in the party, Kgositsile himself would lambast the ANC for losing sight of the social importance of cultural thinkers and practitioners.

In the brashness of our pop and political cultures, he seems to be less known than his former wife, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete, or his son Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, the US-based rapper Earl Sweatshirt.

“Earl Sweatshirt’s father, poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, dies at 79” was the headline put out in the music press.

It’s difficult to understand why. Here is a man, an intellectual and activist, who grew up in the pit of white supremacy, in a back room of a house in a white suburb in Johannesburg during apartheid, who would cut his teeth writing for the resistance newspaper New Age, be sent by the ANC into exile in 1961 to study and later teach in the US and emerge in the jazz clubs of New York as a new generation of spoken word artists raised their fists.

Among them were “the godfathers of rap”, The Last Poets, who would model their debut album on Kgositsile’s first book and his fierce breed of black consciousness. They even took their name from one of his poems.

“There is nothing like art – in the oppressor’s sense of art. There is only movement. Force. Creative power. The walk of Sophiatown tsotsi or my Harlem brother on Lenox Avenue ... Marvin Gaye or mbaqanga. Anguished happiness,” said Kgositsile in an interview in 1985.

He would graduate from Columbia University in 1971, having released his debut book, Spirits Unchained. It would be followed by My Name is Afrika, establishing him as a leading African-American poet and later a theatre activist – a man who delivered his poems like jazz, with his Tswana-inspired vocal rhythms lifting the spirits.

An unheralded giant

The poet could have lived a good life in the smoky clubs and pristine lecture halls of America, but in 1975 he returned to Africa, exiled now in Tanzania, where he worked as a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam and as an ANC organiser (which is how he met Mbete, who was also based there). His political work has been all but relegated to the memories of veterans, but Kgositsile would become one of the key founding members of the ANC’s department of education in 1977, and of arts and culture in 1983. In 1987, he was deputy secretary of the movement. He would teach across Africa before returning home in July 1990, his work finally unbanned and after 29 years in exile.

He would advise arts ministers Paul Mashatile and Nathi Mthethwa, working nonstop to see funding reach artists and development programmes be implemented.

In 2006, Kgositsile was named the nation’s first poet laureate and in 2008, the year he delivered the fire of No Sanctuary Here, was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga.

Despite heartfelt statements on Kgositsile’s death from the arts minister, Parliament and the president, he remains, like Magona, relatively unrecognised.

The legacy of Bra Willie

“I wouldn’t use the word ‘unrecognised’,” says academic Uhuru Phalafala.

“I would use the word ‘mythologised’, because people think they know him, both in South Africa and the US, where he made, I think, an equal contribution ... This is largely due to the fact that his poetry has been published outside the country by small independent press and it is not in the school syllabus.”

Phalafala, who teaches literature at the University of Stellenbosch, completed her PhD on Kgositsile and is writing his biography, a labour of love that has seen her interview the poet, who became like a father to her, numerous times since 2012 in six-hour sessions.

“They know the name, they know that huge smile, the beard, the little giant. But they don’t know the work … We really have not made an effort to repatriate his work and put it in the school syllabus. I don’t think it’s too late to do it.”

With leading black South African thinkers going into exile in the 1960s and 1970s, “there was a mass exodus of many of our most important writers,” says Phalafala.

“This left a huge vacuum in our literary history. Until today, this vacuum exists. We can’t assume that black South African writers were not producing work in the 1960s and 1970s. We need to follow the work into exile and see what they did there.”

Which is what she did, travelling to study Kgositsile’s archive in the US. Her PhD offers an important new take.

“We are always seen to emulate American culture, but in fact we have also influenced them. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Kgositsile’s work proves this. Particularly his sound and melody made him stand out in the US and these are his Setswana influences. He catapults South African literature into the international arena, giving it visibility, circulation.”

Phalafala studied Kgositsile’s lifelong body of work written in Setswana, a language that he found mangled when he arrived in the Bantu education system as a child.

“He did not only impact on literary studies but also musical culture,” says the good doctor, referring to how reliant The Last Poets and other African-American cultural movements were on his voice.

“He is part of the theories around the multiple origins of rap.”

And rap is part of an ancient tradition of communal storytelling.

“The study of oral traditions is problematic because it is rooted in the past and we don’t consider enough how these practices have evolved,” says Phalafala.

Kgositsile’s work, merging the spoken word with jazz, in turn informed hip-hop, with a Setswana influence that also infected America. He would agree. In an interview in Paris in 2013, he told me: “I think the roots of hip-hop are consciously trying to recapture an old African tradition, the oral poem.”

That Earl Sweatshirt is his son should come as no surprise.

When the clouds are clear, we will know the colour of the sky

“He took very seriously the title of national poet laureate. Till his last day, he carried it in his stride,” says Phalafala.

“He took very seriously the role of mentorship. He had mentored a crop of new and emerging South African writers. This took him out of his ivory tower and to the ground. He had none of the usual disconnect between politics and people. He believed politics and culture were inextricably linked.”

The decolonialist in him meant finding his own unique role as poet laureate, originally a British royal court construct, the kind of opposite to the court jester. In a sense, Kgositsile was the poet of the people, both praise singer and village vituperator, listening to the joys and victories as well as the ugly problems of the village and retelling them to the chiefs, even when it was the chiefs who were the problem.

He engaged both the new government and whiteness critically about its failings until the day he died. In our interview in Paris, he said that “reconciliation should impose a sense of social responsibility on everybody”, whites included. He called corruption “a symptom of a more hideous social disease that we haven’t yet diagnosed ... Many people want us to rediscover the path we were on. It will not happen by chance.”

A towering intellect

With his passing, the ANC has lost yet another one of its grand thinkers. Others have simply been left out in the cold.

“We need thinkers to keep people on their toes in case they get too relaxed and forget that they need to be answerable,” Kgositsile told me.

Mgqolozana recalls first encountering Kgositsile’s work: “I expected something more respectable, but not Bra Willie. No Serenity Here, for me, came at a time when we needed it, we needed to hear this angry discourse. It will stay with me forever, he’ll always be relevant.”

Kgositsile’s most recent poems have all the rhythm of the early ones, but doubt and dismay about the state of the country have become pervasive. In 2013, he said he had consciously slowed down his writing as he performed his many other roles.

Generous, selfless, self-deprecating

“Bra Willie always had this humour. He was self-deprecating. He would always joke about old age and sickness,” says Mgqolozana.

“For the first time, over email about appearing at Abantu a few weeks ago, he wrote that he was not feeling well. He said so again on the day, but said he wouldn’t miss this for the world. And he didn’t. He loved it there.”

Phalafala, who is 33, has a similar memory that, to her, sums up the literary giant.

“I would fly to Pretoria to interview him for the biography, but on a student budget with very little money. He was very aware of this and took the work seriously. He was totally committed to the projects of the younger generation … But just before one appointment, his close, close friend Mbulelo Mzamane passed. I could see how completely distraught he was, but still he honoured our appointment, which went on for hours. When I got into my car, I just wept because of his generosity and sheer selflessness.”

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