A Lion Among Men

In praise of the late Keorapetse Kgositsile, who became South Africa's national poet laureate in 2006.

Image of Tsitsi Jaji, right, with Willie Kgositsile. Credit Kelly Writers House via Flickr.

I first learned of Keorapetse Kgsotsile’s work when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, which eventually became my first book Africa in Stereo: Modernism, Music and Pan-African Solidarity, and traced links between Africans and African Americans enacted through Black music. A few weeks after I arrived in Cape Town to do research in 2006 I was thrilled to read that Bra Willie, as he was affectionately known, had been named poet laureate of South Africa. It was a fitting moment of acknowledgment for a man who used his words to fight for freedom throughout his life, paying the cost in the currency of exile when the ANC commissioned him to leave in 1962, not knowing he would not be able to return physically until six months after Nelson Mandela’s release and the unbanning of the ANC in 1990.

During the years in exile, Keorapetse sojourned in Tanzania, the U.S., Botswana and elsewhere. As a result he was deeply involved in the Black Arts Movement in the United States (he is credited with giving The Last Poets their name), as well as being a friend and protégé of that magnificent bridge figure, Gwendolyn Brooks, who, although older than most of the BAM writers embraced and supported their turn to a more explicit political engagement and new experiments with vernacular language and typography. Brooks once said of Kgositsile:  “I would say that he is a ‘master’, if it were not for my belief that no one ‘masters’ anything, that each finds or makes his candle, then tries to see by the guttering light. Willie has made a good candle. And Willie has good eyes.”

What drew me to Kgositsile’s work, initially, were the many poems that paid tribute to music’s power to move and motivate the spiritual courage necessary for political and ethical action. Whether in poems that praised specific artists from South Africa and the U.S. (people like Jonas Gwangwa, Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone and in later years, Cassandra Wilson), or in poems that used music as a metaphor for the power to travel through time and convert visions of transformation into improvisations of freedom, Kgositsile was the best of listeners and the sweetest of singers. As he taught us, music has real power:

The blues have a long arm
Lean muscular as that of the worker
With more power than memory
And desire. (“When Rain Clouds Gather”)

A poet devoted to listening could mine that power, as he did in his tribute to Cassandra Wilson:

Let me sense the chaos
I will respond
with a song
why else
was I born. (“Cassandra Wilson Will Sing”)

However, as I read more broadly, it was his genius with language, the ability to avoid “obscurantism” and yet employ the clear, clean, lexicon of words of few syllables and much symbolism to goad the lurking complicities in even the most committed visions that came to strike me. His poetic vision was that of a gatherer, in the great tradition of those first Tswana writers like Solomon Tshekiso Plaatje, who transformed seTswana into a literary language by collecting ancient classical proverbs, translating Shakespeare, and writing English fiction suffused with the idioms and ethical values of Tswana culture. Although his banning had made his poetry difficult to access in South Africa before the 1990s, a number of post-transition publications by Kwela, Snail Press, and his long-time U.S. publisher, Third World Press, facilitated his work’s circulation and embrace by younger South African page and performance poets.

As a Zimbabwean writer, I was deeply moved by his critique of anti-African xenophobia in South Africa, drawing on the seTswana word moagi, meaning resident, in order to call for an ethics of neighborliness and hospitality that has resonance far beyond the Limpopo. I had the privilege to get to know him personally over the years, and treasure the memory of our last conversation, in the lobby of the UN Millennium Plaza Hotel, at the end of a week in August 2016, where African poets had gathered for a reading celebrating the thriving new African Poetry Book Fund (brainchild of Kwame Dawes).

After the reading, the novelist and poet Chris Abani had reminded Bra Willie that the last time they had been together was during a writers outreach visit to a maximum security prison in South Africa. After a while there, Chris noticed he hadn’t seen the elder for some minutes. He found him seated, as physically close as possible and clasping hands with a man convicted of heinous violence: but Willie’s work was to find the humanity in the bleakest of places, and that was what he was about.

Chatting in the lobby before we parted, Bra Willie gifted me with a set of CDs drawing on the music we both loved, and this week it’s Bheki Mseleku and Abdullah Ibrahim who have been comforting me as I remember this brilliant, loving man, taking comfort in the many tributes I’ve read online, that tell me we are all grieving, and celebrating, a life well-lived and an example that will inspire generations.

Tsemaya sentle, dear Bra Willie. May you dance among the ancestors and continue to speak to us from where you are now. I close with a praise poem in your honor.

Willie, Our Own Lion
for Bra’ Willie, Keorapetse Kgsoitsile.

Well, sweet bean eater, you have come into your own.
Your new den is a chamber of light, thiefed
off of fat cats and liberated from the party magnates
with a prophet’s right. With you there now, it is streaming
with the plenty that has always been enough.

We see you, sauntering among the lions and lionesses
nodding into each other’s Solomonic eyes as you lay down
to watch us from your dearly-won sanctuary. None
this side of ever will hold a candle to your pride.
But what you have given us: pride, paën, praise song,
such words must now arm us with the miracle of future memory.
We know how you be tonight, so we busy ourselves with your tasks:
clasping hands with prisoners, kissing cheeks of madmen,
spitting in the face of butchers, and dancing revolutions with Nina,
with Archie, with Jonas, A.B., Cassandra, Hugh, and Pharoah.

O Brother Willie, our own great lion: can you hear us
roaring in sorrow and rage at time’s cruel trade?:
to have known you, only to lose you,
only to gain your all-powerful ancestral embrace,
our endless nobility, our most humble kin.

Further Reading

The promise of revelation

James Matthews has the distinction of being one of the first Black Consciousness poets and publishers in South Africa. He is the subject of a documentary by director Shelley Barry.