AS HE had written of exiled jazz maestro Johnny Dyani, the late national poet laureate Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile’s work moved many until they could not even hear themselves gasp.
In his poetry, spanning more than 50 years, Kgositsile conveyed a sense of epic enchantment. Seeing him read or perform in his slow, jazzy signature would move one, “without even touching air”.
He spoke truth to power and was principled, even when he served in the government as a special adviser to the then arts and culture minister, Pallo Jordan.
Instructed by the ANC leadership to leave the country in 1961, Kgositsile always served with commitment.
Born in Johannesburg on September 19, 1938, he attended Madibane High School in Soweto. Among his friends at school was trombonist Jonas Gwangwa.
Kgositsile began his career as a journalist at the original New Age under political activist and editor Ruth First and spent years in Botswana, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and the US.
In his typically staccato speaking style, Kgositsile once told me that, at times, living conditions in Tanzania were so rough that while preparing pap, if worms were found in the maize, “we would simply continue stirring without wasting anything since this would possibly be the only source of protein available”.
When he arrived in Tanzania in 1961, he worked under Frene Ginwala at Spearhead magazine and served the ANC in various ways, as the exiled liberation movement was building its base in various parts of newly independent countries.
His desire to advance academically saw him earn a scholarship to study literature and creative writing in the US. That country marked the beginnings of Kgositsile as an academic and literary scholar with an uncompromising revolutionary ethos.
From 1962 to 1975, he immersed himself in African American literature and culture, especially jazz, and became a leading poet in the African American community in the 70s. His poetry collection, My Name is Afrika, remains an iconic work.
Kgositsile taught at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, the universities of Denver and California and others in Dar-es-Salaam, Nairobi, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Fort Hare.
Scholars such as Ntongela Masilela underline his special role in starting the ongoing conversation between African poets and those in the African diaspora. This is supported by the reverence shown towards him by Harlem-based, early hip hop group the Last Poets, who took their name from one of his poems. Gwendolyn Brooks, late poet laureate of Illinois, once said he was a poet who had “made a good candle”, someone with “good eyes”.
Popularly known as Bra Willie, Kgositsile did not suffer fools gladly and had a razor-sharp intellect. The late literary scholar, Mbulelo Mzamane, once fondly described him as “a very short man with a very big heart”.
On many instances, I witnessed Kgositsile’s warmth personally and towards others. More than 10 years ago, on hearing I would be driving then US-based South African literary historian Ntongela Masilela from Joburg to Polokwane to visit the elder statesman of African letters, E’skia Mphahlele, he insisted on coming along and made the trip immensely enriching. He moved heaven and earth to see to it that Mazisi Kunene was named South Africa’s first poet laureate and, in the latter, trying days of the then ailing world-renowned Durban literary critic and former Drum writer Lewis Nkosi, Kgositsile was ever-present with his dear friend and leading novelist Mandla Langa.
Kgositsile gave support to various nation-building literary efforts, such as birthing the Baobab literary magazine and supporting Words Etc, started by the intrepid publisher Phakama Mbonambi. In July 2008, it was a humbling experience to be with this poet-teacher and friend in Ghana. Although most of us - novelists Niq Mhlongo and Siphiwo Mahala, as well as poet Vonani Bila - were over 30 years his junior, Kgositsile never made us feel inadequate. He cared about our well-being and quest for excellence as emerging writers. He also cared to ensure that South Africa’s youth was saved from “the premature daily death of our young dreams”.
He also showed in his work and life that fighting injustice was an act of love. He never stopped pouring out his love to his wife, whom he affectionately called Baby K.
So long, dear elder. Hamba kahle Mkhonto!
* Ngidi wrote the concept document for the national poet laureate award on behalf of wRite Associates and SA Literary Awards. His debut English poetry collection, Friends of the Tender Board, will be published in mid-2018.