The death last week of Keorapetse "Bra Willie" Kgositsile, SA’s poet laureate, has resulted in a flood of tributes from poetry lovers, fellow writers, jazz musos and — inevitably — politicians. There will be a series of commemorative events culminating in an official funeral on January 16. A national icon will be mourned and celebrated. But is he really a national icon? Many current affairs-hungry South Africans would have to admit that they only learnt his name — only discovered that the country had a poet laureate — when they read about his death in a news article. You could say that this is because SA is not a very literary country; that poetry is a marginal affair at best (although jazz, with which Bra Willie was just as strongly associated, has a well-established national cachet).However, this is only the latest manifestation of a disappointing truism: South Africans tend to pay careful attention to the careers of the country’s arts and culture practitioners only when they fall...

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