Keorapetse ‘Bra Willie’ Kgositsile, South Africa’s National Poet Laureate, RIP

South Africa’s National Poet Laureate, Keorapetse ‘Bra Willie’ Kgositsile, has died in Johannesburg.

Kgositsile passed away at Milpark Hospital in Parktown. He was seventy-nine.

Kgositsile was born in 1938 in Johannesburg, and attended Matibane High School. He began his writing career at the New Age, an anti-apartheid newspaper edited by political activist Ruth First, to which he contributed poetry and news reporting.

In the nineteen-sixties and ‘seventies he was a prominent member of the ANC, and spent twenty-nine years in exile in the United States and Tanzania. While in the United States he studied at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania University, University of New Hampshire and Columbia University, and published his first volumes of poetry, including Spirits Unchained and My Name Is Afrika. He also founded the Black Arts Theatre in Harlem and became well known for his readings in New York City jazz clubs.

Kgositsile returned to South Africa in 1990, and was named Poet Laureate by South Africa’s Department of Arts and Culture in 2006. In this role, he has been involved in numerous initiatives related to the arts and literacy, and most recently appeared at the Abantu Book Festival in Soweto.

In 2008, ‘Bra Willie’ was awarded the National Order of Ikhamanga, Silver, 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’.

A statement issued earlier today on Twitter by the Department of Arts and Culture expands on Kgositsile’s political and artistic impact:

From Kgositsile’s poem ‘Mayibuye iAfrika’:

… I remember
the taste of desire
crushed like the dream
of ghetto orphans rendered
speechless by the smell
of obscene emasculation
but this morning
the sun wakes up
laughing with the sharp-edge
birth of retrieved root
nimble as dream
translated memory rides
paste and future alike

Kgositsile’s poetry includes Spirits Unchained (1969), For Melba (1970), My Name Is Afrika (1971), The Present Is a Dangerous Place to Live (1974), Places and Bloodstains (1975), When the Clouds Clear (1990), If I Could Sing (2002) and This Way I Salute You (2004).

A selection of poems from Kgositsile’s life work titled Homesoil in My Blood: A Trilogy, featuring a foreword by Mandla Langa, is to be published this year by Xarra Books.

From 1978 to 1992, Kgositsile was married to Baleka Mbete, current Speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa and until recently the Chairperson of the ANC.

Kgositsile’s son Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, from a relationship with Cheryl Harris, a law professor at University of California, is a well-known hip-hop artist who goes by the stage name Earl Sweatshirt.

He is also survived by a daughter Ipeleng (from a previous marriage to the late American civil rights activist Melba Johnson Kgositsile) and a second son, Randy Mafalanka.

The Johannesburg Review of Books extends condolences to the family and friends of this truly iconic writer, who did so much to shape literary and political sensibility across the world.

Image: Victor Dlamini

11 thoughts on “Keorapetse ‘Bra Willie’ Kgositsile, South Africa’s National Poet Laureate, RIP”

  1. Hulara Keorapetse. Thankfully, we shall not look for your soul, among “petrified hypocrisies.” Hulara, o re tlogelele Pula!

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