Bid­ding good­bye to ‘Bra Wil­lie’

Re­mem­ber the ‘dop’ at Sis Dolly’s, Com­rade Kgosit­sile? Be­hind the can of ice-cold beer was the aca­demic, poet and politi­cian, writes Johnny Masilela Farewell to a poet, dear son of the African soil

Weekend Argus (Sunday Edition) - - OBITUARIES - LUKE FOLB

NO DRINK, oh no drink what­so­ever, can beat an icecold beer on a hot day for a for­mer ex­ile re­turn­ing to the moth­er­land, after years spent be­yond the borders of the home coun­try.

At the time of her re­tire­ment from decades in the Joburg city lime­light, Dolly Rathebe ran an up­per mid­dle-class she­been in the Pre­to­ria town­ship of Mabopane, known sim­ply as Sis Dolly’s.

It was around the time of the re­turn of the ex­iles and the mass re­lease of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers that I some­how found my­self shar­ing a rare mo­ment on the premises of

Sis Dolly’s with no less a mor­tal than the late Pro­fes­sor Ke­o­rapetse Kgosit­sile.

Kgosit­sile and a cou­ple of other re­turn­ing ex­iles had slept over at

Sis Dolly’s place. It was Bra Wil­lie, as Kgosit­sile was af­fec­tion­ately called by us wannabe word artists, who un­veiled to me that 1960s model and singer Sis Dolly was Man­dela’s favourite artist ahead of and after his re­lease from prison.

Rathebe, she whose stun­ning looks and musical reper­toire blew away slum­land so­cialites and in­tel­lec­tu­als alike dur­ing the roar­ing 1960s, did from time to time play cabaret at the nearby Ler­a­tong Jazz Joint owned by lo­cal kl­eva, the late Peter Petlele.

Le­gendary sax­o­phon­ist Kip­pie Moro­long Moeketsi was also a reg­u­lar at the joint, of­ten back­ing up Sis Dolly’s vel­vety voice, belt­ing out ‘em blues.

But I di­gress.

Back to the ice-cold beer. Just at that mo­ment Bra Wil­lie lifted a can of cold beer to his lips and then, stick­ing her beau­ti­ful oval face from be­hind the kitchen door, Sis Dolly scolded the ex­iled re­turnee: “Hey wena my laaitie. Hier is nie in ex­ile. Ons meal (eat) voor ons drink, jou moer!” (Hey you ras­cal, this is not like in ex­ile. Here we eat be­fore con­sum­ing al­co­hol, dammit!)

Be­hind the can of ice-cold beer, the ready smile and the sig­na­ture cap was an­other Kgosit­sile, the aca­demic, poet, thinker and shrewd politi­cian.

In Sis Dolly’s lounge, I was taken aback when Bra Wille said he had sent for me (the lesser known word artist), be­cause he had the idea of younger writ­ers and jour­nal­ists work­ing on the bi­ogra­phies of artists of years yon­der.

My late home­boy, for­mer Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesper­son, Ron­nie Mamoepa, was the one who linked Bra Wil­lie with my hum­ble self.

Across the cof­fee ta­ble in Sis Dolly’s lounge, Bra Wil­lie fixed his eyes on mine and sug­gested that be­cause Rathebe and I lived in the same city of Pre­to­ria, I should se­ri­ously con­sider re­search­ing the bi­og­ra­phy of Dolly Rathebe, the 1960s’ fore­most model, so­cialite, singer and street­wise kl­eva.

Bra Wil­lie re­turned from ex­ile with a dream to get younger writ­ers and jour­nal­ists to each re­search the bi­og­ra­phy of a 1960s artist as an ex­er­cise in ap­pre­ci­a­tion of our artis­tic el­ders.

The Dolly Rathebe man­u­script re­search project came to naught, be­cause of the re­fusal of cer­tain mem­bers of the Rathebe fam­ily to co-op­er­ate.

Just be­fore go­ing into ex­ile in the early 1960s, Bra Wil­lie is said to have put con­sid­er­able en­ergy into the un­der­ground work of the thenex­iled ANC.

When he left the coun­try he struck up a nat­u­ral rap­port with the likes of Pallo Jor­dan and Chris Hani. How many of us lesser known word-artists know that Bra Wil­lie, Jor­dan and Hani used to share the work of Greek leg­end Euripi­des, the prose of the Ro­man Cat­ul­lus and the po­etry of English­man Wil­liam But­ler Yeats?

Yes, I re­peat, Chris Hani was not only a fighter clad in mil­i­tary fa­tigues, but an avid reader, thinker and in­tel­lec­tual.

Bra Wil­lie is known to have been an in­flu­en­tial leader of the ANC in the 1960s and 1970s.

He was ex­iled in the US from 1962 to 1975, em­bark­ing on a study of the African-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture of the likes of James Bald­win, with a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in jazz, both as a mu­sic and po­etic id­iom.

Back from years of ex­ile, Bra Wil­lie con­tin­ued to work among us lesser-known word-artists, un­til act­ing pres­i­dent Kgalema Mot­lanthe be­stowed the Order of

He had a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in jazz, both as a form of mu­sic and as a po­etic id­iom

the Ikhamanga on our very own poet lau­re­ate in 2008.

Bra Wil­lie is the for­mer hus­band of Na­tional As­sem­bly Speaker Baleka Mbete.

He is known among the younger gen­er­a­tion as the poet who fa­thered Amer­i­can rap­per Thebe Kgosit­sile, alias Earl Sweat­shirt, of the hip hop en­sem­ble Odd Fu­ture.

In all fair­ness, the post­hu­mous bi­og­ra­phy of this great man of let­ters is cry­ing out to be re­searched and pub­lished, dare I sug­gest by the most se­nior among us word-artists, Bra Mandla Langa. And what about Bra Wil­lie’s post-di­as­pora dream of the lives of Dolly Rathebe, Miriam Makeba, Gen­eral Duze, Kip­pie Moeketsi and Mahlathini, among many oth­ers?

A moya wa go o robale ka kag­iso, Rre Kgisit­sile. O sen­atla gareng ga di­natla! KE­O­RAPETSE Wil­liam ‘Bra Wil­lie’ Kgosit­sile, South Africa’s first na­tional poet lau­re­ate and strug­gle icon, died last Wed­nes­day.

He was 79.

Born in Jo­han­nes­burg in 1938, Kgosit­sile at­tended Mait­bane High School.

He did odd jobs after leav­ing high school be­fore tak­ing up a job with the New Age news­pa­per, where he be­came a prom­i­nent writer. He wrote re­ports and po­etry for the pa­per, which was un­der the ed­i­tor­ship of po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist Ruth First.

Kgosit­sile be­came a vo­cal mem­ber of the ANC and in 1961 left the coun­try for Dar es Salaam in Tan­za­nia.

A friend Mandla Langa, who had known him since 1977, said he be­lieved that to not be po­lit­i­cal was not a choice.

“Bra Wil­lie was my clos­est friend and com­rade. I knew of him long be­fore I first met him, and he was a man of un­shake­able per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal in­tegrity,” said Langa.

While in Tan­za­nia he wrote for Spear­head mag­a­zine be­fore moving to the US the fol­low­ing year. In the US he stud­ied at mul­ti­ple uni­ver­si­ties. He also pub­lished his first vol­umes of po­etry while in the coun­try.

He be­came a prom­i­nent fig­ure in the New York jazz club scene, where he was known for his read­ings, while he also founded the Black Arts Theatre in Har­lem.

Kgosit­sile re­turned to Africa in 1975 and be­came a lecturer at the Univer­sity of Dar es Salaam in Tan­za­nia. While there he mar­ried cur­rent Speaker of the Na­tional As­sem­bly, Baleka Mbete, who was also in ex­ile at the time. They di­vorced in 1992.

He re­turned to South Africa in 1990 and in 2006 he was named the coun­try’s first poet lau­re­ate. He was in­volved in ini­tia­tives that aimed to pro­mote the arts and lit­er­acy as well as book fes­ti­vals. He also worked closely with the Depart­ment of Arts and Cul­ture be­fore he re­tired in


“He spear­headed the for­ma­tion of numer­ous arts or­gan­i­sa­tions and move­ments world­wide.

He will be re­mem­bered for his pro­fes­sion­al­ism, eru­di­tion, in­tegrity, to­tal al­lergy to cor­rup­tion and in­jus­tice,” said Langa.

He was awarded the Na­tional Order of Ikhamanga for ex­cel­lent achieve­ments in lit­er­a­ture and us­ing these ex­cep­tional tal­ents to ex­pose the evils of the sys­tem of apartheid to the world.

Kgosit­sile’s po­etry in­cludes Spirits Un­chained, For Melba, My Name Is Afrika, The Present Is a Dan­ger­ous Place to Live and many oth­ers. He is sur­vived by his wife, Baby Dor­cas Kgosit­sile, and his seven chil­dren.


Pro­fes­sor Ke­o­rapetse Kgosit­sile dur­ing a po­etry ses­sion at the Unisa li­brary in 2014.

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