ODE TO A POET
Mandla Langa on Keorapetse Kgositsile
● A few weeks ago, the slight, compact, bearded figure in sombre attire and a sailor’s cap entered the Parktown eatery where I was seated for lunch, causing a few end-ofyear office-lunch guests to pause and regard my friend, affectionately known as Bra Willie.
I’d always marvelled at how Bra Willie touched people. He seemed to cultivate curiosity without saying a word, deepening the mystique surrounding himself with a mere look while disarming everyone within range with his trademark smile. He had a way of drawing people in, making even total strangers feel as if they had a special kinship. Such was his self-containment and comfort in the castle of his skin.
But the Johannesburg in which
Keorapetse William Kgositsile was born in 1938 was a hostile place where a bleak fate awaited any black child. Stubborn, compensating for his slight stature with a razor-sharp intelligence to thwart bullies, Kgositsile learnt early to trust his own instincts. He spoke with tenderness about his mother Galekgobe, who instilled in him integrity and a total allergy to dishonesty and injustice. His mother’s name could be the key to Kgositsile’s journey into writing poetry, for it means something that cannot be eroded, incorruptible.
An avid reader with eclectic tastes, devouring everything from William Golding and Charles Dickens to André Gide and Marcel Proust, Kgositsile was a diligent if somewhat headstrong student at the legendary Madibane High School.
In the late 1950s the school already had a reputation as a cradle of political activism, an alma mater of luminaries such as Dr Ephraim Mokgokong, Aggrey Klaaste (editor of The World and Sowetan), Stanley Motjuwadi (journalist) and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. This fertile ground for a young, questioning mind led to frequent confrontations with authority, especially teachers who were not quite conversant with their subjects.
Already writing poems and miscellaneous prose as a hobby in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Kgositsile left school after getting a job at New Age, a Communist Party weekly and a mouthpiece of the struggle that was championed by the ANC. This was where he worked with people like Joe Gqabi and Ruth First, who helped direct his creative energies and polish the rough edges of a young man who showed much promise.
His disgust and contempt for the apartheid system feature eloquently in his earlier works. In the poem No Serenity Here he asks timeless questions:
When, then, did the brutality of imperialist appetite and aggression evolve into something of such ominous value to us that we torture, mutilate, butcher in ways hideous beyond the imagination; rape women, men, even children and infants for having woken up on what we now claim, with perverse possessiveness and territorial chauvinism, to be our side of the boundary that until only yesterday arrogantly defined where a piece of one European property ended and another began?
Seeing his role as witness, Kgositsile used his pen to expose the evils of the system, recording the resistance to forced removals, the boycotts and the strikes.
Running through his impressive oeuvre are themes celebrating women stalwarts like Dora Tamana and Lilian Ngoyi and the women who led the historic march to the Union Buildings in 1956. He acknowledges the contribution of musicians and other cultural figures that inspired him.
Instructed by the ANC, Kgositsile left South Africa for exile in 1961. After crossing from then Bechuanaland into then Northern Rhodesia, he was taken to Ndola, the site of the plane crash that had killed UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld in September 1961. This scene made a huge impression on him as it was rumoured that apartheid South Africa and then Southern Rhodesia had engineered the crash.
He was stationed in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he worked with Frene Ginwala, publishing Spearhead magazine.
It was in exile that he met and was mentored in politics by Duma Nokwe, then secretary-general of the ANC, a sharp legal mind who had won widespread recognition and even the grudging respect of the South African foreign minister, Eric Louw.
In 1962, Kgositsile left on a scholarship for the US, where he studied at various universities and graduated at Columbia University with a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. It was in the US that he resumed political activity while writing profusely.
His first poetry collection, Spirits Unchained, received widespread acclaim. He received the Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award together with the coveted National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Award. His second collection, My Name is Afrika, established him as a serious voice in the cultural life of the US.
Apart from being the moving spirit behind the establishment of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, his commentary on the American scene and his involvement in the emergent civil rights movement saw him share platforms with movement leaders like Amiri Baraka, H Rap Brown and Malcolm X and writers such as Larry Neal, Sterling Plumpp and his special friend Gwendolyn Brooks.
Together with Es’kia Mphahlele, Dennis Brutus, Daniel Kunene and Mazisi Kunene he founded the African Literature Society. In all the years he spent abroad, he never lost his South Africanness. Throughout, he embodied the strength of men and women who changed the world but refused to let the world change them. Kgositsile took what was best in the diaspora and adapted it to the benefit of his homeland.
The call of Africa became too much. In 1975, Kgositsile took up a teaching post at the University of Dar es Salaam, a city that represented revolutionary change in Africa. Here he was able to interact with the ANC and various liberation movements, teaching while being part of the councils that planned the way the struggle would unfold.
After the slaughter of unarmed students in Soweto and elsewhere, which started in
June 1976, there was an influx of young refugees into Tanzania.
It was Kgositsile who, in February 1977, led a contingent of South African exiled musicians, poets, writers and scores of students to the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Nigeria. The month-long extravaganza hosted more than 75 000 performers from the black world and its diaspora. Kgositsile devised a programme, together with Jonas Gwangwa who would go on to form the ANC’s Amandla Cultural Ensemble.
Returning from the festival in Nigeria, Kgositsile was instrumental in the formation of the ANC’s department of arts and culture, working with Barbara Masekela and Mongane Wally Serote.
In three decades of exile, he taught in several African countries including Botswana, Kenya and Zambia.
Kgositsile returned to South Africa when apartheid ended in 1990. His sharp tongue veered away from the depredations of the apartheid system to excoriate the corruption he saw among black leaders, some of whom had been in the trenches with him. He would continue being a thorn in the side of those who had turned their backs on their people in their hurry to line their pockets.
He served his country as adviser to a succession of ministers of culture, from
Pallo Jordan, with whom he enjoyed lifelong friendship, through Lulu Xingwana to Paul Mashatile. When Mashatile was redeployed, Kgositsile’s services were no longer required by Mashatile’s successor. This was South Africa’s national poet laureate, a man recognised for his services to arts and culture to the extent that he received the National Order of Ikhamanga in Silver; his services were no longer required.
Despite the setback of virtual unemployment, an index, really, of the plight facing artists in this country, Kgositsile immersed himself in running workshops for the youth, because he believed in young people. He writes:
If you have never walked through the restless shadows of wounded dreams beware; the young ones of tomorrow might curse you by not wanting to remember
anything about your ways because everything
about you leaves a bitter taste in the mouth
Kgositsile envisions the condemnation by the young, who’ve been catapulted into adulthood by the cowardice of their predecessors.
Nothing in his world is as obscene as the crime of disloyalty. This is not the conventional disloyalty, that shown towards a particular political party (considering how political parties sometimes turn their backs on their original manifestos), as much as disloyalty to truth. Nothing — and this shines through all his work — is as important as integrity. This extends to the integrity of the word, of language.
South Africa runs the risk of forgetting its history. The heroes of the past are the villains of the hour. Internationalism, one of our mainstays during the long days and nights of love and war, has been relegated to the back burner. We have no memory of the beauty — and horror — of struggle, of men and women who perished in various arenas, the bodies still unclaimed.
In evoking the names of heroes, in reminding us of our uncelebrated casualties, Kgositsile forces us to face our own imperfections, our collective disloyalty.
His poems are a meditation on music, jazz, the loyalty of artists who stuck to their craft and honed it and died knowing they had paid homage to what is best in humankind. He castigates the fat cat and the opportunist, the politician getting fat on the blood of his — yes, his! — people. He warns against false prophets and holy believers in the words he uses like a scalpel:
When we settle for the rigid compliance of an unimaginative bureaucrat
where, then, oh where is the morally conscientious voice
to cup the poisoned vein of the present that sags
under the brutal weight of these insatiable appetites
Every South African — and anyone who wishes to know the journeys we’ve taken — should go back to the works of the late Keorapetse William Kgositsile, one of our country’s best craftspeople. From them they will glean nuances of Pablo Neruda, Aimé Césaire, our own oral tradition and, more importantly, an integrity that shines through from beginning to end.
We have a responsibility to the coming generations. Or ours will be the restless bones, writhing from the curses of betrayed youth.
This is the way Kgositsile salutes you.
He is survived by his fourth wife, Baby Dorcas Kgositsile, and seven children and grandchildren. His latest poetry collection, Homesoil, is published by Xarra Books.