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
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.