Words of wisdom: Writers, friends and intellectuals have paid tribute to poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, also known as Bra Willie, who they say was never without a smile. Picture: SYDNEY SESHIBEDI
Words of wisdom: Writers, friends and intellectuals have paid tribute to poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, also known as Bra Willie, who they say was never without a smile. Picture: SYDNEY SESHIBEDI

Tributes have been pouring in from around SA and the world since the death last week of celebrated poet, academic and social-justice activist Keorapetse William Kgositsile.

Writers, friends and intellectuals have reminisced about how Bra Willie, as the professor was fondly known, touched the lives of many. Using his sharp mind to write poetry that connected easily with human consciousness, he earned the title of the "people’s poet". The 79-year-old died after surgery related to circulatory issues at Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg.

Bra Willie was humble to a fault, always with a smile. He embarked on a writing career while studying in the US in the 1960s and was part of a poetry movement called the Jazz Poets. He was held in awe by young writers when he returned to SA. His poetic pursuits were as humble as he was. He could easily have snubbed the many poetry sessions to which he was invited, where young poets — the talented and not-so-talented — shared the stage with him as if he were one of their contemporaries. But he did not.

In many a small venue, he could easily have been mistaken for an elderly poet who had only discovered his talent late in life and was grateful for an opportunity to perform alongside young people, some of whom mistake rap for poetry.

He became so close to young poets that several sought his advice, and he always made himself available.

Kgositsile was SA’s second poet laureate, after the late Mazisi Kunene. There is no doubt Bra Willie was a poet universally loved across generations and especially in culture, arts and political circles

But he was no fool when it came to giving real feedback, as many who benefited from his wisdom and counsel, such as Napo Masheane, Myesha Jenkins, Ntsiki Mazwai and Lebo Mashile, will attest.

He always insisted that while performance poetry was necessary as it made poetry accessible to the masses, the written word should be able to stand on its own, without the performance and advantage that might accrue as a result of the charisma of a performer.

Many listened and learned, but a few eager performers who took short cuts into poetic fame resented him.

Kgositsile was SA’s second poet laureate, after the late Mazisi Kunene. There is no doubt Bra Willie was a poet universally loved across generations and especially in culture, arts and political circles.

He went into exile in 1961, ending up in the US, where he attended university and went on to teach at various universities. He had started to make an impression in literature and journalism before he left SA.

He wrote for left-wing South African publication The New Age, which was edited by Ruth First, who was assassinated in Mozambique by apartheid spy Craig Williamson.

Back in SA after the end of apartheid, Bra Willie shunned the mainstream while several fellow writers took up positions in politics, government and the media.

He did, however, serve a stint as adviser to three ministers of arts and culture — his longtime friend Pallo Jordan, Lulu Xingwana and Paul Mashatile. And unlike several of his former exile friends who became social and political commentators in post-apartheid SA, his voice of wisdom was conspicuous by its absence.

Instead, he chose to articulate his frustration about the status quo at the poetry spaces he often shared with the youth — which probably explains why he became a hero among young writers.

President Jacob Zuma ordered a special official state funeral for Bra Willie in recognition of his contribution to the development of arts, culture and politics in contemporary SA.

A co-ordinating committee headed by writer Mandla Langa is arranging the funeral and has put together a series of commemorative events leading to his send-off on January 15. A condolences book is available at Bra Willie’s family homes in Killarney and Diepkloof. It will also be available at the official memorial service at the Johannesburg City Hall on January 11 and at a service on January 12 at the Market Theatre in Newtown.

The memorial service at the city hall will take place from noon to 4pm. The Market Theatre service runs from noon.

On January 16, the state burial procession will start at the Kgositsile home in Diepkloof at 7am.

There will be a service at Marks Park, starting at 9am, and the burial will be at West Park Cemetery.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa will deliver the eulogy at the burial.

Please sign in or register to comment.