Elinor Sisulu shared this tribute to South Africa’s Poet Laureate Keorapetse ‘Bra Willie’ Kgositsile, who died on the third of January.
When Baby Kgositsile called to say, ‘Your brother is critically ill in hospital. I think that you and Bra Max should come and see him,’ I never imagined that the next morning we would arrive at Milpark Hospital to find him gone. It was a surreal moment to be standing in the hospital corridor looking at Manda Langa, Trevor Fowler and my husband Max Sisulu, stunned and bereft at the loss of their friend and comrade, Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile.
If I had the poetic ability of our dearly departed friend, I would write a poem about the strangeness of a world without his presence. I would ask him why, of all the days in the year, he chose to leave us on 3 January 2018, the tenth anniversary of the death of our own beloved eldest son Mlungisi. I don’t have the words to describe the emotions evoked by this strange coincidence.
I first met Kgositsile in person when I was a newlywed who had just moved to Lusaka to join my husband. Kgositsile turned up at our flat accompanied by a comrade from the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, whose name eludes me at this moment. I was taken aback by the way my husband introduced them: ‘Kgositsile likes moving around with this man because he is the only person in the world smaller than him!’
I had first come across the work of Keorapetse Kgositsile at the international writers conference at the inaugural edition of the Zimbabwe Book Fair in 1983, so I was quite overawed that I was meeting him in person and felt embarrassed by this less-than-respectful introduction. People can be very sensitive about comments around their size and I looked at our visitors with concern, worried about their reaction. Sensing my discomfort, Kgositsile, his face lit up by his characteristic big smile, said, ‘You see, Elna, you made a mistake by marrying this man!’
In that moment, Kgositsile became Bra Willie to me, a friend for life, who pronounced my name in a way no one else did, which I found tremendously endearing. I came to realise that his close bond with my husband was expressed through affectionate teasing and taunts and that there was never any offense taken. Soon after that we were invited to his place, where we spent a wonderful evening with Baleka [Mbete], enjoying the lets-learn-to walk competition between our toddler Vuyisile and their lovely little son Neo.
We always enjoyed the time we spent with Bra Wille, whether in Lusaka or Harare, and later Johannesburg and Cape Town. His humble, approachable demeanour and his sharp sense of humour immediately put people at ease. He moved easily between different settings, interacting with people from different walks of like and all generations, especially young children.
I have fond memories of a holiday we spent with Bra Willie, our mutual friend Nuruddin Farah and my close friend Amina Mama in around 2001 or 2002. Bra Willie had been going through a tough time. Like so many others, returning home and settling after decades in exile had not been an easy process for him and he was grappling with some personal issues. He welcomed the idea of a holiday and we decided to go to the Golden Gate National Park in the Free State.
It was a joy to spend so much time with Bra Willie, who showed remarkable patience with our energetic children. On our return journey, we divided the children between the three cars. Our then-teenage boys Vuyisile and Duma travelled with Max, while Nuruddin and Amina’s daughter Abyan travelled in their car with Amina and I. Bra Willie and Nuruddin were allocated the two five-year-olds, Nuruddin’s son Kaahiye and our son Sandile. When we arrived in Johannesburg, Nuruddin gave an amusing account of how Sandile insulted Willie’s car throughout the journey: ‘Uncle Willy, your car is so old. It is too slow, not like my Daddy’s car. I want to go in my Daddy’s car now.’ It says a lot about Bra Willie’s temperament that he did not lose patience. It must have been difficult to put up with our energetic and often cantankerous children, while at the same time missing his own children, whom he talked about constantly.
I will miss Bra Willie especially for the literary conversations we used to have. When I told him that I had met literary icon Peter Abrahams during a trip to Jamaica, Bra Willie shared his experience of Peter Abrahams and in the process gave an account of the literature emanating from the Pan-Africanist movement. I could see why he was an acclaimed professor of literature and wished I could have been so lucky as to have been one of his students.
As we lay him to rest, I am haunted by a sense of regret that we did not fully appreciate the gem that was in our midst. I feel that our society in general does not value our writers enough. I think of Nuruddin Farah’s conversation with a senior ANC leader in which said leader commented that there is no poet who captures the agony of exile better than WB Yeats. Nuruddin’s response was: ‘There is a South African poet who does it better, and that is Willie Kgositsile.’
I recall Bra Willie himself recounting the story of a young journalist who once asked to interview him. During the interview the young man asked, ‘So Professor, what do you write about in your poetry?’ Bra Willie was pained by this, not because of his own ego—he was the least egotistical person I’ve known—but because it reflected on the state of the reading culture in South African society. He would talk about how his generation of young activists struggled to get hold of books that were banned, while the current generation seems to struggle to read those same books, now freely available. I am so glad that one of his last public appearances was at the Abantu Book Festival where he could see young people actively engaging with African literature.
Bra Willie was passionate about his own language and about promoting indigenous languages. I always felt affirmed by his support of the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation‘s efforts to promote children’s literature in indigenous languages and he enthusiastically accepted our invitation for him to become one of our reviewers of Setswana children’s books.
The tributes to Bra Willie from literary luminaries like Njabulo Ndebele (see below), Mandla Langa, Fred Khumalo (see below), Sandile Ngidi, Sandile Memela and others have been deeply moving. As Fred Khumalo commented on Mandla Langa’s piece: ‘The tribute itself is a piece of poetry.’ I totally agree with Mandla’s suggestion that these tributes should be compiled into a publication that can hopefully encourage future generations to engage with the sublime poetry of our late Poet Laureate, best described by Njabulo in his tribute: ‘Lines of such insight abound in Kgositsile’s poetry. Reading or listening to him always made me recall the miracle of African proverbs: vivid, terse, and so wise: a kind of timeless, practical wisdom.’
There is a saying that when an old African dies a library burns. Happily this does not apply in the case of Keorapetse Kgositsile. He has left us a library of poems and reflections. I will borrow Njabulo’s words again:
Long may he endure in our bookshops, libraries, classrooms, lecture rooms, theatres, churches, taxis, trains, and buses, waiting rooms, and from time to time in parliament where politicians can remind themselves that they can become better at what they do if they were able to admit their folly more frequently.
And for the closing of my tribute I must give the final word to Sandile Memela, who ended his long poem of tribute with a final stanza worthy of Bra Willie:
The world is a stage
& you are a man of the Word
the Word that has always been there
from the beginning to the end
to be the mirror of our souls
a clear expression
of our wishes & hopes
Your spirit lives
to help us clear the clouds
Image: Victor Dlamini
Njabulo Ndebele shared this tribute to Keorapetse Kgositsile on Facebook:
Tread carefully among the blues
The blues can be mean
—from ‘The long arm of the Blues’ by Keorapetse Kgositsile
Here are lines of poetry that capture so profoundly the essence of a music form.
Or again, listen to Keorapetse Kgositsile meditating on history:
To wander, the ancients say,
Is to see. And, in seeing,
Perhaps wonder about the road
That shapes who we are
Or destroys who we might have been.
Here the poet reminds us just how open-ended the human journey through history might be.
Lines of such insight abound in Kgositsile’s poetry. Reading or listening to him always made me recall the miracle of African proverbs: vivid, terse, and so wise: a kind of timeless, practical wisdom.
Listen to him in the poem ‘Mandela’s Sermon”
Blesssed are the dehumanised
for they have nothing to lose
but their patience
False gods killed the poet in me. Now
I dig graves
with artistic precision
If Kgositsile was the blues, his passing is so mean. But then again, like the blues, he will endure with ‘artistic precision’.
Long may he endure in our bookshops, libraries, classrooms, lecture rooms, theatres, taxis, trains, and buses, waiting rooms, and from time to time in parliament where politicians can remind themselves that they can become better at what they do if they were able to admit their folly more frequently.
May you kind, generous, gentle, loving, loyal man, brother, and friend, who enjoyed a good laugh; you, wise fellow citizen who loved and believed in his people, Rest In Peace!
Republished with permission from Njabulo Ndebele’s Facebook:
Fred Khumalo shared this tribute to South Africa’s Poet Laureate Keorapetse ‘Bra Willie’ Kgositsile on his Facebook page
… on this continent
the voice of the ancients warns
that those who shit on the road
will meet flies on their way back.
—from ‘No Serenity House’ by Keorapetse Kgositsile
Ah, Bra Willie, your legacy will not fade away easily from the minds of those who were familiar with your work, in the arts and in politics; those who love this country, those who speak truth to power. You inspired us.
When I worked with Bra Willie at This Day newspaper in 2003 I had to keep pinching myself: I am inhaling and exhaling the same air with this living legend. Every day, I see him at his desk. I talk to him everyday (with that other lovely brother poet Sandile Dikeni who was also with us at This Day) I am humbled by his turn of phrase. He has a witty comeback to almost everything you say to him. And stories galore. One day he and Hugh Masekela and other exiles slaughtered a goat inside a bathtub, in an apartment in New York! No time to tell you how they managed to smuggle the goat from the outskirts of NYC right into Manhattan.
Pity he never wrote his memoirs. Would have been da bomb, cos his stories were varied—sometimes melancholic other times angry; sometimes thought-provoking other times outrageously out of this fucking world. Then he would, in the middle of a discussion we were having about an editorial comment he had to write, start telling us what Pablo Neruda said. Or Langston Hughes. Not because he was name-dropping, but to shore up the argument he was making for the editorial comment to be written, and from what angle.
Over coffee he would casually talk about the mechanics of poetry. I am not a poet (poetry is tough) so I would just sit and bask in Bra Willie’s wisdom. every sentence he uttered was a poem.
He was a political stalwart, but did not allow his allegiance to the ANC to blind him, to blunt his scalpel with which he attacked hypocrisy, corruption and disloyalty wherever these scourges showed their ugly heads.
Bra Willie was a writer’s writer, a political activists’ political activist. But he never was a demagogue. I was humbled by Bhut’Mandla Langa’s tribute to Bra Willie in today’s Sunday Times. The tribute is in itself a piece of poetry. Listen to Bhut’Mandla wrapping up his tribute to the man, just listen: ‘We have a responsibility to the coming generations. Or ours will be the restless bones, writhing from the curses of betrayed youth.’ Oh, Bra Willie, are there some clones of you hiding somewhere in the wings? We need more of you; we need more like you!