Bro Willie, We Met Before We Met
A Tribute to Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile, SA’s National Poet Laureate.
By Morakabe Raks Seakhoa –
It was in the heady ‘70s, just on the eve of the 1976 eruptions that shook the apartheid substructure to its very core that you gallantly marched into our youthful consciousness.
Your larger than life, your gigantic lyrical, fiery lines of conscientising poetic mrhabulo illumined our fierce freedom march no power on earth could delay, nor even crush or stop, whether by intimidation, torture, imprisonment, maiming, disappearings, exile or death.
Your outlawed, uninhibited and roadmapping work, long before the rule of the internet, email and cellphone, miraculously and timeously found their way to our forever thirsty and welcoming minds, arming us to the teeth to explode away oppression of one by another, preparing us for the long road to today’s freedom’s birth.
What a marvel when we, at last, now met you in person, at last, at last! That was in 1990, just after you, with your sharp and bomb-like pen, pointed our oppressors’ gaze to the writing on the wall.
The writers’ fraternity, through the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW) you helped sire, welcomed you back like a long-lost guide you truly were. A never-ending festival of life-giving interaction ensued, through poetry-laden socio-political workshops, politically-nuanced and tempered poetics of our times in public readings, new dawn policy formulations, presentations and lectures (the latter you said you never really liked, rather strange for such a towering and world-respected scholar and Professor who’s every breath was you as our untiring teacher).
Post-exile, you wasted no time in getting us to walk with you the streets of our land, retracing your steps through the nooks and crannies of your being before Comrade OR Tambo called you abroad to help broaden, deepen and rebuild our people’s parliament, the African National Congress that the oppressor vowed to obliterate.
Your intellect unparalleled, clarity of mind and thought, sage-like, drew queens, kings, presidents, ministers, premiers and city mothers and fathers like moth to light: making you their advisor of choice.
We at the wRite associates take pride in, with the assistance and partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture, being the lightning rod for the process of establishing the South African Literary Awards that bestowed on you the title of the pre-eminent poet of the nation, the South African National Poet Laureate, after your elder brother and comrade, Professor Mazisi Kunene, who handed you this baton after his departure yonder.
As we bid you farewell, Bro Willie, our foremost mentor, Comrade and lodestar, we derive solace in the fact that, much to your chagrin and initial toyitoying against our idea and intention of honouring you, your memory and your precious, precious legacy with the Keorapetse Kgositsile Annual Lecture four years ago, you finally, albeit reluctantly, acquiesced to our request and, to the very end, gave it your unconditional support and presence at all the presentations thereof.
Bro Willie, hard as it is, we have no choice but to accept your departure yonder, in the full knowledge that, with you and your forever beloved, Aus’ Baby’s abiding counsel, in this the fourth anniversary of the Keorapetse Kgositsile Annual Lecture, your fourscore coming of age was, or, rather, is, going to be a bonfire literary affair like no other, “letting countless flowers blossom and innumerable schools of thought contend” amongst your peers, friends he young and old, colleagues and all everywhere.
This way we shall and must salute you, our Prof, our National Poet Laureate, our Bro Willie!
Robala ka kgotso. Robala ka kgutso, Bro Willie, you Forever Young!
Morakabe Raks Seakhoa is a poet, founder director of the wRite associates and the South African Literary Awards, convenor of Africa Century International African Writers Conference and Keorapetse Kgositsile Annual Lecture
Send-off Message for our Beloved Comrade Professor Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile
From Mῖcere Gῖthae Mũgo on behalf of the Gῖthae-Mũgo family
Warm greetings to all who are gathered here today to participate in this send-off for our beloved brother and comrade, Professor Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile! Special greetings, condolences, solidarity and healing thoughts to the bereaved members of Willie’s family who are here.
I first heard about Comrade Willie’s transition through Brother Kassahun Checole, Publisher of Third World Press, who included me in a distribution email list of colleagues with whom he had shared this devastating and unexpected news on January 2nd, 2018. On January 5th, I replied to his message thus:
… thank you very much, for sharing the news of Comrade Kgositsile’s departure with us – news which I am receiving belatedly as I have been off email for some days now due to health challenges. What can I say? I can only express my shock and sorrow over this awful news even as I remind myself that Willie lives on. Surely, there goes one of the literary world’s finest poets and clearest embodiments of the term “revolutionary.”
When I traveled to South Africa with my daughter, Mũmbi wa Mũgo, a couple of years ago to deliver the 4th International African Writers’ Day Lecture at the Africa Century International African Writers Conference [at the invitation of Comrades Raks and Sindiswa Seakhoa), Comrade Willie was the first face we encountered at the airport where he had come at night to welcome us [to South Africa]. We [my family and I] will miss his genuine friendship, gentleness and infectious sunny smile. South Africa, Africa and the world have indeed lost a human being who made the world a more humane place.
May Comrade Willie Kgositsile travel on with dignity throughout Ancestral Land and in the Hereafter where he has been reunited with his Maker and with loved ones who went before him. Ashe! Afya! Moyo!
To those remarks of January 5th, permit me to include these additional thoughts. Since I met Comrade Willie in the 1970s when he was in exile with his family teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam and then later as a colleague in the Department of Literature at the University of Nairobi, I have never known him to waver from his revolutionary commitment once. He loved South Africa and Africa with all the devotion of a “Son of the Soil,” to borrow from Wilson Katiyo’s book title. He also loved art, culture and poetry with a passion. He was a master of imaginative compositions. In fact, in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, we, his fellow-artists, used to refer to him simply as “Poet.” This brother’s artistic imagination was exceptional. He was a poetry genius and I dare say, he is already busy in the Hereafter crafting poems about his new home.
We will miss you, Poet. We will miss you revolutionary who never turned into “a walking lie,” as Frantz Fanon once described traitors from the intelligentsia. So, as our people in Jamaica would say: “Walk well,” beloved comrade. Yes, go well, “Son of the Soil!” And if you go well, we will stay well!
From: Comrade Mῖcere Gĩthae Mũgo, on behalf of Mũmbi wa Mũgo and the late Njeri Kũi Mũgo
Mĩcere Gĩthae Mũgo, Ph.D
Emeritus Meredith Professor for Teaching Excellence
Syracuse, New York,
January 15, 2018.
Rest in Peace, Brother Kgositsile
A Tribute by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
When I heard the sad news of the passing on of my brother, Prof Willie Kgositsile, my first reaction was what? I shall never hear his joyous laughter again?
From the moment, I first met Prof Kgositsile in New York, USA, during his days of exile and dreams of home, I felt as if I had known him all my life. Later, in a moment of dreams turned reality, he received me in an apartheid free South Africa, for which he had fought all his life. We could not escape the irony: he was back home; I was now in exile from home. He welcomed me on behalf of himself and also as one of the leaders of the Congress of South African writers. He even arranged for my first meeting with Mandela in the ANC Offices in Johannesburg. Mandela was then Head of the party but not yet the President of the country. Kgositsile accompanied me on my tour of the country in support of the new democratic optimism.
Brother Kgositsile was Pan-Africanist through and through. Africa and the Black experience of life all over the world were always in his mind and his spoken words. Even today, in the USA, he is still revered as one of the leading members of the Black Arts Movement of the sixties alongside other black writers like the late Amiri Baraka, and the still living Sister Sonia Sanchez. On the Continent, he is revered as among the leading poets of Africa. In Kenya, they think of him as a Kenyan for the years he taught at Nairobi University. Wherever he was, under whatever conditions, his personality and talent always shone.
I think of Brother Kgositsile, I want to smile. When I read his poetry, I want to shout hope. When I think of his life and work, I want to live and fight and struggle for a more humane world. But most of all I want to celebrate life. For him, Celebrating life meant caring for it, fighting for its expansion to include the least among us. I believe that even now his spirit is watching us, urging us to celebrate life. There, with our other revered ancestors that include, Alex la Guma, Dennis Brutus, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Nadine Gordimer, Zeke Mphahlele, Mandela and Nkrumah, Kgositsile is being welcomed with the words:
For I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.
In his life and work, he fought for the rights of all peoples to adequate food, water, clothes and shelter, in deed for their right to light and joy, and his poetry voiced that vision.
His spirit of love and laughter and hope dwells among us. Thank you my brother.
KEORAPETSE KGOSITSILE: “THIS WAY I SALUTE YOU”, BEING A TRIBUTE TO A CONTINENTAL ICON BY OSITA EZELIORA
How does one begin to write a tribute to a leading African poet? The passing on of Poet-Scholar Keorapetse Kgositsile poses such a serious challenge. But, as the Igbo would say, “A family owns a cock, but the community owns its voice”. Given this enormous challenge, I have chosen to go through my personal archives, and somehow, I was able to identify one of the essays that capture aspects of his prodigious writings. For me, therefore, tribute about this great African poet is about celebrating life, not about mourning the dead. For, indeed, people like Poet “Willy” hardly die. Here, then, is a statement that precedes his eventual physical departure from the universe of humankind. THIS WAY, Sir, I SALUTE YOU!
*“Kgositsile;s ‘THIS WAY I SALUTE’ YOU takes its title from Mongane Wally Serote’s poem, “City Johannesburg”. In this poem, the identity of the black poet as well as those of the rest of the black peoples are subjected to clumsy searches for tiny pieces of papers or permits that sum up their earlier claims to “life”. But where, for Serote, the ‘Pass’ signifies an important mnemic site, and while the supposed salutation to the city of Johannesburg only rekindles memories of a paradoxical cosmopolis that lures and yet destroys the black people, Kgositsile’s notion of “salutation” is a significant departure from the traumatic narratives of the nation. Importantly, it corroborates Serote’s rhythmic proclamations of ‘departure’ and ‘return’ in History is the Home Address. Kgositsile, South Africa’s national poet-laureate is, unarguably one of the finest voices from the African continent. With such impressive contributions as Spirits Unchained (1969), For Melba (1971), My Name is Afrika (1971), Places and Bloodstains (1976), Heartsprints (1980), Freeword (1983), When the Clouds Clear (1990), The Present is a Dangerous Place to Live (1974), To the Bitter End (1995), and If I could Sing (2002), and so forth, it is a pleasant statement on his career that kgositsile has garnered an impressive number of literary prizes within Africa and beyond since 1969.
There is evidence that Kgositsile is a widely travelled poet-scholar. Not only has he the personal acquaintance of, and has maintained friendship with the best of African writers and scholars, his sojourn and teaching in a number of American universities also earned him the respect of many of the brightest minds of the American cultural community. Kgositsile is a poet in the best meaning of the concept. He is neither presumptuous nor prolix. His poetry is inspired and, yet, carefully constructed in the most ‘economic’ management of words. Written over a period of three decades, what seem obvious in Serote’s This Way I Salute You, are the possibility of laughter and a demonstration of an appreciative spirit even in the midst of trauma. The entire collection celebrates a number of the world’s cultural ambassadors, from Chinua Achebe, Es’kia Mphahlele, David Diop, Denis Brutus, Hugh Masekela, and so on. A man of culture, Kgositsile’s appreciation of the global cultural icons is not limited to literary artists, but also to musical icons and saxophonists. In Kgositsile’s poetry, then, memory also recollects the beautiful moments of our humanity, just as it laments “the turbid ebb and flow of human misery””.
For his interests in the African humanity, global humanity, South African rejuvenation projects and retrieval of cultural memories, “Bra Willy” shall always be remembered. My personal encounter with him in 2005 was an experience that remains in my memory forever because he proved to be more than a writer. He was a confident intellectual who frowned against “the criminal illiteracy”—to quote him—that defined most South African blacks especially in their apparent lack of awareness of their historical and racial oneness with the rest of Africans, north of the Limpopo. This way, Sir, I salute you. REST WELL GREAT POET! REST WELL GREAT THINKER!!
*AN EXTRACT FROM DR. OSITA EZELIORA’S ESSAY ON ‘POETRY AND RECOLLECTION IN SOUTH AFRICA AFTER APARTHEID’
This poet is not for mourning. Willie was a prince of Africa’s lyric realm. We came to know him at a time when a continent fought through history’s chains and illusory divisions towards a shared, vibrant identity. The median sector of the last century proved, for many of us, a season of discovery – discovering one another through a creative resolve that never did falter or diminish. All through the dark days of Apartheid, Bra Willie’s was among the most reassuring voices that the flame of the human spirit remained unextinguished, its creative pulse unattenuated. We were grateful for that, and even more grateful that we could celebrate that bond outside bondage, through many more years of unfettered convergence of creative minds.
The personal recollections are always the most persistent, implacable. As a being of unique mould, Willie’s warm humanity, a leprechaun of witty mischief, remains irreplaceable. Yes of course, intimations of loss have commenced, a mounting awareness of a void, and I send my deeply felt condolences to his immediate family, and to our extended clan in South Africa. While the loss is keen, the memories remain fresh, his passage a summons and stimulus for generations to whom the baton is progressively passed. May they prove worthy of their torch bearer, now Laureate Ancestor of the hereafter.
Prof Wole SOYINKA