‘Spending time with Bra Willie is the closest thing to being in touch with the soul of this country’: Read Mandla Langa’s Introduction to Keorapetse Kgositsile’s Homesoil in My Blood

Homesoil in My Blood: A Trilogy
Keorapetse Kgositsile
Xarra Books, 2018

Exclusive to The JRB, we present author Mandla Langa’s foreword to the late South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile’s final collection, Homesoil in My Blood: A Trilogy. Kgositsile died after a short illness in January, shortly before the book was published. Find our coverage of his death here.

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Negotiating the Crossroads

It is an unwritten, though widely respected, principle that countries with adverse social conditions tend to produce artists gifted with sensitivity and acuity of vision that mark them as undisputable chroniclers of their times. It was James Baldwin who made the observation that the poets, meaning all artists, ‘are finally the only people who know the truth about us.’ (1) Knowledge of truth places an obligation on the receiver of that knowledge, or revelation, to devise ways of countering untruths. It is a knowledge that places a burden on the poet and forces him or her to propose action to change the conditions afflicting his or her society. As social actors, then, poets have endeavoured to alert us to gross human rights violations in various dominions over the globe while enriching humanity’s understanding of the fragile and evanescent—though deadly—power of despots.

Another unwritten law is that very few societies accord artists the recognition they deserve, in line with the mordant dictum that a prophet is never appreciated in his or her own backyard, except when said prophet serves a purpose. This reaches an obscene level where the death of an artist elicits outpourings of grief from the populace; grief, which the rulers and their minions seek to channel and appropriate, where they come out and make laudatory statements at memorial services, which drip with cant and insincerity. There is an inverse correlation between the criminality of a regime and the enforced silence of the denizens. It is to this silence that the poet gives language and voice. It is a voice that the powerful of the land do not want to hear and strive to suppress at every turn.

When South Africa made its tumultuous and somewhat difficult transition from apartheid to democracy, many of us rejoiced because this was a fulfilment of a prophecy. We had come out of a night of endless darkness. The poets, like Keorapetse Kgositsile, had long prophesied this ignominious end of the apartheid regime and had, furthermore, started suggesting how we should approach the Promised Land. He warns: There is no such thing as escape or sanctuary in life / where all things come to pass. He has been around and has seen how other countries embraced democracy only to let its seeds fall into fallow ground. He had witnessed the silencing of the poets and how charlatans were elevated and given the mantle to speak for the voiceless.

Most countries are fated to overlook the treasuries that exist in the men and women of talent; in this regard, the fatally incurious are charged with schooling young minds and the insensitive to head prisons and hospitals. The resultant products are warped and maimed for life. Kgositsile, born almost eighty years ago, not only evinces a youthfulness that puts people half his age to shame; he also tunes into the frequencies in which the young minds operate. He is a regular feature in poetry workshops, mainly organised by young people, at home and abroad. Spending time with Kgositsile—affectionately known as Bra Willie—is the closest thing to being in touch with the soul of this country. Although capable of putting everyone he comes across at ease, there’s no doubting the keen mind behind a ready smile. Deep learning and education, erudition that baffles scholars weaned on the udder of Marx and Jesus, inform every line in his poetry.

This ease with people from all demographics, which accompanies a deep empathy, comes from a past that was far from propitious. No black person, however he or she might imagine himself or herself to be in on a good bargain, could lay claim to an auspicious past. It is a past that follows the man or woman to the present. This understanding could have been at the back of Kgositsile’s mind when he penned a series of poems under the rubric, The Present is a Dangerous Place to Live.

It is a past in which he worked as a journalist for New Age—not to be confused with the currently controversial paper carrying almost the same name, The New Age. The former was a Communist Party weekly and a mouthpiece of the struggling people of South Africa. Steeped in the culture and discipline of the ANC, Kgositsile’s works remind us of the challenges that faced courageous stalwarts of the liberation struggle, people like Ruth First, Dora Tamana, Lilian Ngoyi. It was a heady period where he witnessed history unfolding before him, the resistance against apartheid providing material to be turned into copy for the paper. It was a time of the forced removals, the most iconic being Sophiatown in Johannesburg and District Six in Cape Town; there were boycotts against the regime’s busses, people shouting, ‘Azikhwelwa!’—We Will Not Ride—in Alexandra Township, thousands and thousands marching resolutely on, from the township to the centre of Johannesburg. There were boycotts against potatoes, following an expose of brutality and murder in the Bethany potato plantations. One story, which never saw the light of day, which Kgositsile reported, involved an escapee from the plantation where prison-like conditions were the order of the day. The victim, whom Kgositsile interviewed at Kliptown Clinic, had sustained horrific injuries across his back as a result of routine whipping.

Although blood or its various incarnations is a motif scattered through Kgositsile’s collection—itself titled Homesoil In My Blood—his evocation of the horror unleashed on black people from coast to coast is a lesson in restraint, the poet opting for a red-hot scalpel rather than a knife to cauterise a malignancy, allowing the reader to reach his or her conclusions, to connect the dots. One of his most memorable poems, an anthem to resistance, contains these lines: To every birth its blood / All things come to pass / When they do / We are the gods of our day and us / Panthers with claws of fire.

Whether commenting on the rites of passage of a younger self—I lost my virginity and ran / into a world liced with whores—Kgositsile shows an almost surgical precision in his choice of words reminiscent of his contemporaries in what was once the Afro-Asian Writers Association. One recalls Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the late Pakistani poet whose ‘Come Africa’ evoked the solidarity between Africa and Asia, or the late chain-smoking Mahmoud Darwish, whose efforts helped align the struggle of the Palestinians against Israeli occupation with that of the African liberation movements. These, like Nicolás Guillén, Pablo Neruda or, much later, Nancy Morejón from Cuba, with whom Kgositsile interacted in many forums, demonstrated a legendary reverence for the power of words.

In his public workshops with younger writers, Kgositsile stresses the need for people to respect the language in which they write. Although he’s neither a formalist nor a grammarian, he believes that the first lesson for any aspirant writer is to read and enhance the range of his or her understanding of the world. This he advises even though he scoffs at the idea of first principles, believing, as do most poets, that one should be open to life’s surprises; that’s what makes poetry. Here, he resembles a young child in his excitement over what another writer has written, calling up a friend and telling him or her to listen while he reads a passage, enthralled by the language. In the works of others—he tells us—we enter the magic realm of their compassion. The tragedy of the apartheid regime was in its insistence on crushing the human instinct towards empathy, an irreducible attribute of humanity. The entry point in knowing the other, he tells us in many of his poems and lectures, is to understand—and respect—the other’s language. Language, he maintains, is the repository of values and these could be set at naught if language is handled cavalierly; and by ‘language’ the poet embraces the whole gamut of communication, its structure and mode of delivery, which is important in our country with its linguistic diversity. If he had chosen, Kgositsile could have written in about half-a-dozen of the South African languages he has mastered. He warns in a poem, ‘Random Notes to My Son’:

Beware, my son, words
that carry the loudnesses
of blind desire…
… I have aspired to expression, all these years,
elegant past the eloquent word …

He continues:

… I have
fallen with all the names I am
but the newborn eye, old as
childbirth, must touch the day
that, speaking our language, will
say, today we move, we move …

Whether advising a son, paying homage to a woman of distinction or lending comfort to the bereaved, Kgositsile’s poems are as imbued with vigour as if written from the frontline; no matter how lyrical he gets, he remains akin to those soldier-poets spawned by the World War I who teach us that a birch tree forest destroyed in a bombardment represents the decimation of any future potential. There is a visceral connection between word and the lived reality of South Africans. This is in line with the belief that art, to mean anything, must be involved in social activism. He has on occasion been scathing of intellectuals who indulge in the luxury of ‘art for art’s sake’, much in line with Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara views. Che held that ‘the fault of our artists and intellectuals lies in their original sin: they are not truly revolutionary. We can try and graft the elm tree so that it will bear pears, but at the same time we must plant pear trees. New generations will come who will be free of the original sin.’ (2) Everyone has his own version of the original sin; for Kgositsile, one can attest, it derives from inattention, both official and personal, to one’s mission in life—and a commitment to making a difference to the lives of others. It lies in creating hurdles towards ensuring that art—poetry—becomes a full affirmation of beauty and life.

Naturally, all this consciousness has its source in years of grounding in the politics of his country. The language is further imbued with influences from internationalist struggles. His poems pay homage to people and situations that many of us might find abstruse and alien, which serve to educate the world about what it has forgotten. The collection, a condensed history of the world, alerts us to the universality of experience especially among the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America, the so-called Third World. We see this in the epigraph, an extract from a poem by Tchicaya U Tam’si, the Congolese writer who shrugged off a French-inspired identity (3) for a pen name that means ‘the small paper that speaks for a country’ in Kikongo, and who died in 1988. U Tam’si’s poem—I said to you / my race / remembers / the taste of bronze drunk hot—prepares us for the kind of feast we should expect from Kgositsile’s poetry collection.

It is a rich menu of tributes to other writers—Aimé Césaire, David Diop, Chinua Achebe, Ayi Kwei Armah, Gwendolyn Brooks, Can Themba, Es’kia Mphahlele, AB Spellman, Sterling Plumpp, to name a few—political activists and ideologues, for instance, Patrice Lumumba, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X. In a poem ‘When Brown is Black,’ Kgositsile includes the refrain popularised by the radical poet-activist, H Rap Brown. A onetime member of the Black Panthers, Brown would hold up a box of matches and—like a preacher with a congregation in a call-and-response routine—he’d ask: ‘What does a penny buy?’ His audiences in ghettoes menaced by trigger-happy police would supply the answer, ‘A box of matches.’

Music and musicians, politics and culture are other areas where the poet’s voice reaches higher registers of precision. With music, one hears in his written lines the harrowing loneliness of the blues as evoked by BB King’s guitar; the sassy rasp of Nina Simone or Cassandra Wilson or the doomed, desperate lyricism of Billie Holiday, the Lady Day who sang the blues. In these moments, induced by distance and yearning, it’s not difficult to see the journeys that Keorapetse Kgositsile took, for more than thirty years, out of his native land. In the music of the Americas, wrought in chains out of Africa onto slave plantations and recycled into the world, he must have heard the strains of his own people’s songs—the dirges and ditties—especially in the unuttered supplications of those who, like Nina Simone, wished to know how it would feel to be free. In that loneliness, he was not alone.

An unashamedly political individual, Kgositsile gravitated to the struggles of societies writhing under the boot of oppression and was instrumental in the formation of writers’ organisations of the African Diaspora. It is Africa, however, where his heart has always been. Incidentally, he is among a chosen few who witnessed both the First World Festival of Negro Arts in April 1966, in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, and the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77) in Nigeria, from 15 January to 12 February 1977. Hosted by Senegalese president and poet, Léopold Sédar Senghor, the First World Festival of 1966 bristled with artistic talent, which included Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker, Aimé Césaire, André Malraux, Wole Soyinka and Langston Hughes.

The Nigerian chapter of this initiative, eleven years later, took place under President Olusegun Obasanjo. Kgositsile, who was the artistic director of the ANC contingent together with Jonas Gwangwa, the trombonist, shepherded young survivors of the June 16 1976 slaughter of students by the security forces. It was here that the seeds of the suite of poems celebrating the militancy of the youth germinated in Kgositsile’s mind. Together with the young people, as part of more than 17 000 participants from over fifty countries, Kgositsile took part in recitals, poetry readings, drama performances and concerts. There was a lot to take in. The colloquiums discussed subjects mainly dealing with strategies to wrest the developing world from the depredations of the capitalist complexes.

One of the most ironic points raised by Abdias do Nascimento, a Brazilian scholar, was that the United States, whose contingent was second to the host Nigerians’ in size, was participating as part of its Cold War strategy. The hosts were not amused at the criticisism against the US; Obasanjo’s military government was still touchy as it had come into being via a coup against a charismatic Murtala Muhammad, assassinated exactly a year earlier. These were lessons about the realities of post-independent Africa, each day providing a new twist to the drama of life. It was during FESTAC ’77 that Mengistu Haile Mariam consolidated his grip on power through mass executions called the Red Terror; tearful Ethiopian artists had to pack up and go, the rest of the participants wondering whether they were seeing them for the last time. For Kgositsile, though, there was work to be done. Although not given the diplomatic responsibility to represent his country, he, however, arrogated on himself the right to ensure that the world knew what was going on in South Africa—and the need for the world to take a stand.

He was preaching to the converted with Stevie Wonder, Sun Ra Arkestra, Donald Byrd, Tad Joans, Imamu Amiri Baraka from the US; they all knew the compact bundle of trouble called, with exultant reverence, ‘Willie!’ Coming from a country where hate was the order of the day, it was sobering, for most of the witnesses, to see how much one man could be loved. The recipient of this adulation, Kgositsile, it seemed, was at home in the world. He was on first-name basis with both Tabu Ley and Franco from the Congo, with Gilberto Gil from Brazil, members of the Bembeya Jazz National from Guinea, and countrymen and women from South Africa, Louis Moholo, Dudu Pukwana and Miriam Makeba. Many of the people that were there remember an unforgettable, unrepeatable concert—a jam session—featuring Miriam Makeba and Stevie Wonder at the Tafawa Balewa Square. It was in the music and song of his countrymen and women collaborating with artists from the four corners of the globe; the skits performed by the young students fresh from the slaughterhouse, which was their country—students whose vulnerability drove hardened Nigerian soldiers to weep openly from their seats in the packed hall of the University of Ife—that Kgositsile knew that it would soon be time to return home. In the scrubbed and hopeful faces of young people, Kgositsile saw his younger self.

He was 23 years old when he left home in 1961 on instructions from the African National Congress. Much had already happened in South Africa to precipitate an exodus of the country’s black intelligentsia. Draconian laws such as the Bantu Education Act, which sought to relegate black people to the status of serfs, had been enacted some eight years earlier. There was the catch-all Suppression of Communism Act, a forerunner to the Terrorism Act, which illegalised political activity throughout the land. Following the Sharpeville Massacre and the removals of communities from places like Sophiatown—not to mention the morning swoops by the Special Branch that led to people being charged under byzantine pieces of legislation—many people went into exile. Some of Kgositsile’s contemporaries in the creative world, writers like Can Themba, Lewis Nkosi, Alf Wannenburgh, Bloke Modisane, Bessie Head, Es’kia Mphahlele—not to mention musicians like Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Gwigwi Mrwebi, Miriam Makeba—left the country, either on exit permits or as part of troupes going to ply their craft overseas. Teachers, artists, doctors, lawyers, students and nurses left in droves to seek greener pastures abroad; quite a large number left to swell the ranks of the armed wing of the liberation movement.

In exile, Keorapetse Kgositsile was already knowledgeable enough about the complexities of his native land. This is important because there are many people who were vulnerably young when they went into exile, without a clear understanding of whence they came. These immersed themselves in academic studies and returned home more bewildered than when they left. With Kgositsile, who was already grounded in the politics of the country, exile was a place in which to reflect and recreate the South Africa he had left. It was the playwright, David Hare, who wrote that an exile walks around the world carrying in his or her head the image of a perfect universe. For Kgositsile—as his poems show—that perfect universe he took along to the United States, Tanzania, Yemen, Zimbabwe, Botswana—and various destinations in between—was his native home. That is why he could write:

You have come from yesterday
To remind the living that
The dead do not remember the banned
The jailed the exiled the dead
Here I meet you
And this way I salute you
With bloodstains on my tongue:

and exhort the reader to make these painful—and edifying—connections between the past and present and celebrate the fact that the privations only served to make us even stronger.

There are many personalities, in the arts, sports and politics that have been immortalised in Kgositsile’s collection. There are members of his family, children born in various parts of the world and, one would think, in completely different political environments. There are people who helped Kgositsile come of age politically, most notably Moses Kotane, addressed affectionately as Malome or uncle, and Duma Nokwe. There are poets in far-flung countries like Chimid from Mongolia. Interestingly, save for Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and a few other luminaries, Kgositsile’s massive oeuvre is conspicuously thin on references to contemporary political leaders, the poet probably taking the view that it is sometimes better to keep one’s powder dry than comment on the blasphemy of a heroic tradition. As of this writing, the country is caught up in a frenzy of speculation on the implications of the failure of the vote of no confidence president of the Republic. One imagines that there will be poems in the future that will certainly condemn the cravenness of those representatives of the people who sacrificed their integrity on the altar of corruption and greed. Time, as Malcolm X was wont to say, will tell.

This collection by our National Poet Laureate situates us in all those places and bloodstains that inspired him to devote endless hours to bring us closer to him, to his country—and to his breast that beats with everlasting love.

Mandla Langa
Johannesburg, Tuesday, 8 August 2017


Footnotes

(1) ‘The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,’ from The Cross of Redemption by James Baldwin, edited by Randall Kenan, Vintage International, 2011, p.51
(2) ‘The Cultural Vanguard,’ by Ernesto Che Guevara, (Translated by Gerald Paul and excerpted from the Author’s Man and Socialism in Cuba), taken from Writing in Cuba Since the Revolution, ed., Andrew Salkey, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, London, 1977, p. 140
(3) He was born Gerald-Felix Tchikaya, 25 August 1931

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