A Tribute to Keorapetse Kgositsile
By Philippa Yaa de Villiers
It’s the ‘how’ – Keorapetse Kgositsile – a man of his word.
“The important thing is also to not waste time in some rather byzantine discussion on which African cultural values are specific or non-specific to Africa but to envisage these values as a conquest by a parcel of humanity for the common heritage of man, achieved in one or several stages of his evolution.”
– Amilcar Cabral, National Liberation and Culture (1973)
“Need I remind
Anyone again that
Is an act of love
I might break into song
Like the bluesman or troubadour
And from long distance
In no blues club
I might say
Baby baby baby
There is no point in crying
Just because just because I’m not at home …”
Keorapetse Kgositsile, Red song
I first met the work of Keorapetse – Bra Willie Kgositsile through Vusi Mahlasela’s rendition of Red Song in 1992 at the Grahamstown festival. The show, called Moscow State Circus, featured Lesego Rampolokeng and a punk band called Live Jimi Presley. At some point a man in protective clothing took an angle grinder to the set. It was such a vibrant image: these contrasting black voices, the sinister rage of Rampolokeng and the melodious harmonies of Mahlasela and the sparks bursting off the blade wielded by alienated punks responding to the class struggle, torching the lot. Kgositsile ‘s lyric, with its unique ability to marry political analysis, ethics and natural emotional movement in brief, potent images, struck me as a poetic expression of people’s dream of freedom – as individuals, as a collective, as a generation. How to live your freedom as an Afrikan. It resonated with my own bone-deep desire for acceptance, for liberation.
I tracked Bra Willie down seven years later, coming out of the Windybrow theatre where he had been giving a workshop to young poets. “Please teach me to write poetry like you,” I gushed. “You are two hours late,” he said drily. “If you want to learn, first learn to be on time.” I later discovered that his self-discipline, reinforced with his military training made him intolerant of the much loved and bandied-about term “African time,’ or any racialized excuse for sloppy behaviour or thinking. For acolytes and students scattered across the world, in formal and semi-formal relationships with him, we took on the standards he expected from himself, as far as we were able.
Acting students are taught to value criticism – the work is completed by the audience. How you are ‘read’ is as important as how you construct your performance – criticism, therefore is not personal, but a welcome mirror. I carried on trying to learn Kgositsile through other poets, Lesego Rampolokeng cast me in Fanon’s Children, and I discovered Gabeba Baderoon. And I lived. Grew. Explored. Became a mother. Found a father. “Every human experience has been explored,” Kgositsile said. “What makes the poet’s voice unique is the ‘how’.”
I kept on writing and sharing my work at different poetry sessions, settling at Jozi House of Poetry, which was started by the feminist collective Feelah Sistah, which had exploded on to the scene through the voices of Myesha Jenkins, Lebo Mashile, Napo Masheane and Ntsiki Mazwai. Championed by this space, and encouraged by having won a couple of prizes, I entered the National Library’s contest for the Community Publishing grant and won the budget to bring out my first collection of poetry. After fetching it from the printers I took it to Myesha’s house in Yeoville, where an impromptu party welcomed it into the bookshelf and the world, and Makhosazana Xaba bought the first copy. The next day Napo called me up, told me to put on my best dress, she wanted to be seen with a published author. In Rosebank, nogal.
It is a spirit of friendship and solidarity between artists that enables culture to develop and thrive. And we had to aspire beyond Yeoville and Bez Valley. In Rosebank we found Kgositsile having coffee with writer and theatremaker John Matshikiza. After much teasing, they each bought a copy of Taller than Buildings. As newly-appointed Poet Laureate, Kgositsile made it his personal business to engage with young poets, always with respect for their work and their lives, and always with brevity. He read at township slams, the Jozi spoken word festival, Poetry Africa, anywhere, in fact, that called him. Everywhere he read, he taught. He taught me the value of discrimination, and the precise meanings of words, like discrimination. He taught me to move slower, always conscious of the memory you are leaving with another. He respected women as the strongest poets, but never refused attention to men who sought it.
Shortly after he bought the book, the Department of Arts and Culture included me in a delegation of poets to the Havana International Poetry Festival. It was a hugely important turning point in my career, beyond the obvious ‘break’ or affirmation, it gave me opportunities to have long conversations with respected writers, in addition to my friends and intimates – a kind of privilege of influence. Later in 2007, at a self-funded literary adventure with Napo and Lebo, we met an old friend of his, the Trinidadian artist Lennox Raphael, who had worked and lived with him during his New York years. Raphael hadn’t seen him for almost 40 years but still remembered his vibrant talent. When we went to Denmark it was hook-up time.
Kgositsile’s acclaim is based not only on his beautiful poetry, but in his activism and intellectual leadership, both on our continent and in the United States, where he was a familiar of Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka, the Black Panthers, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou and the entire cohort of the black diasporic intelligentsia from Mongolia to Jamaica, London to Dar es Salaam. During our travels to Cuba, Sweden, the UK, Germany, and Denmark together, he shared stories with myself and other delegates when the world was ‘a black planet’. And everywhere we went, he reconnected with friends, from Margaret Busby to Nancy Morejon, and made new ones. When we traveled, he seemed to magically transform to look like the people we were visiting – even the Swedes. I’m not joking when I say he embodied internationalism.
In 2010 I was invited to co-edit an anthology of African poetry to be translated into Mandarin. We editors, Isabel Aguirre and the Chinese poet Kaiyu Xiao, decided that Keorapetse’s poem No Serenity Here was the best poem to represent all that was uniquely valuable about African poetry, that also echoed the diaspora: a close and critical commentary on power, history and resistance, in a language that weaves lyrics from his personal canon, imaginative flourishes, and the word on the street; an essay, a song, a complaint – a world of a poem. A mouthful. A belly full. We wanted a Chinese readership encountering an African intellect to meet those who will not be easily dismissed: Kgositsile, Aidoo, Soyinka. We wanted communism to remember its soul.
The collective decides who the poet is, we do not decide ourselves, was the way that he taught us about the intellectual legacy consolidated by AC Jordan. He preferred to work collectively, and had the skill of maintaining his integrity within the context of a sometimes highly contradictory engagement. Besides his beautiful writing, his teaching over many years and many continents, will be part of his legacy. His subtle skill was to recognise a writer, meet them where they are and encourage them to do better. A writer builds their world through the words of others – he generously shared names of authors we hadn’t had a chance to learn, due to apartheid, colonization and imperialism. And our own blind spots. Okot p’Bitek, Mia Couto and Sterling Plumpp were some of the writers I came to through Kgositsile.
He taught regularly at Wits Writing Centre and Khanya College, both sites for emerging writers, where he encouraged them to read, to be ruthless with themselves in the correct use of words. To say what we really mean. He was the patron of several research groups and festivals, including the South African Poetry Project, or ZAPP.
Kgositsile, despite his own celebrity and prowess, was generous without gushing. That affirmation meant a lot. On that first trip to Cuba, Lebo Mashile patiently helped me to learn his Tswana name, and its meaning. It inspired a poem which I offered him for his 70th birthday.
I had the honour of performing with him twice last year. He read with us at the launch of South Africa ‘s first jazz anthology, To breathe into another voice, edited by Myesha Jenkins. Launched at the Orbit, he responded to the music of Lex Futshane and Yonela Mnana with a performance that showed us what must have blown the minds of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the late sixties, his words syncopating with the beats, the images flowering over the music pouring out of the lyrical fingers of the master musicians.
In 2017 I was asked to contribute to a project to produce a collected works of Keorapetse Kgositsile for the African Poetry Book Fund, and I chose to collaborate with Kgositsile scholar Uhuru Phalafala, who has been interviewing him for the past five years, and wrote her PhD on his contribution to the world of poetry.
In his way of being and doing, he made himself available to read alongside younger or less known poets, participating in conversations, reaching out, always to raise consciousness about poetry, language, culture and social change. Poets all over the world have been shocked and saddened by the loss of this generous giant of literature and rhetorical thought, patient and loyal member of the human collective.
At his State Funeral, Cyril Ramaphosa seemed to have discovered the power of culture and the importance of conscience and consciousness. His speech evoked a return to the humanities, an almost rhapsodic praise of how culture impacts a society’s ethics, the potential of realizing a palpable Afrikan pride. Even in his absence, Kgositsile was making subtle and important changes to the ‘how’ of politics, through words chosen by the people he schooled. At the various events celebrating his life and giving thanks for his contributions, Barbara Masekela, now also bereaved, and Sebiletso Mokone – Matabane spoke beautifully and intimately about their close friend and brother; his high school desk-mate Jonas Gwangwa, Elinor Sisulu, Prof Tshilidzi Marwala, Mandla Langa all shared the richness of their exchange and their sense of loss; at the Market Theatre tribute Stefan Rubelin united all present as Kgositsile’s people, and at the state funeral his daughter Ipuseng reminded us of his unique way of making everybody feel like they were his best friend.
To Baby Kgositsile whose funeral tribute to her husband was a piece of beautiful literature, and to the Kgositsile and extended family who generously opened their doors and hearts for mourners to celebrate his life, we thank you for sharing your father, your husband, this lover of life, letters, justice and humanity. We were broken but we are better now. Life needs us to be strong and true and ready for action, and remembering you, we can.
Red apples (from The Everyday Wife, Modjaji books 2010)
(for Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile on his 70th birthday)
I have prayed for you,
asking you to manifest, to become part
of me, and if you are more than a spirit,
if you possess a body also,
for you to be protected.
I didn’t know you before
I saw you, but when I met you I knew you were
mine. You are everybody’s child,
you stand at the intersection of
will and destiny, there is enough of you
for everyone who wants.
You are a photograph,
an album of possibilities
looped like a memory
A small boy shakes a mossy tree
laden with ripe red
as birds throw
scraps of sweetness
through the air, and bees
bend their knees to pray to the
and streets lay their feet in the
bucket of the sunset,
and aching dust floats off them,
and the day sighs and it’s jazz,
you are the deep blue night, die verlore nag,
torn away from the stars,
saxophones run down the railway tracks,
playing catch with your fears;
pennywhistle cupids shoot hearts
with melodic arrows, and honesty
can’t sleep while injustice creeps along
slimy tunnels, looking for outlets;
and the boy under the bearded tree
his century, his day, his apples,
the belly of his red, red shirt:
time flows downstream
and life swims hard against the flow
you are part of me now and I can stop praying
or rather, the prayer
can now become
Boy, apples, city or jazz,
wherever you are,
whoever you are,
you are enough
By Phillippa Yaa de Villiers