Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile was given a state funeral at the Heroes Acre, West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg, South Africa on January 16, 2018. There were also tributes to the fallen hero by Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.
Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile, popularly known as Bra Willie, was the South African Poet Laureate who passed on January 3, 2018. The professor and poet was part of the anti-apartheid struggle and spent decades away from his homeland in exile across the continent and in the diaspora. You can read more about him here where we posted about his demise.
Bra Willie was laid to rest with the South African nation watching on TV in an emotional event attended by writers, politicians and other dignitaries. There are videos online which show the whole funeral in varying lengths going up to 6 hours. We recommend that you watch the two minute video below to get an idea of what happened in Johannesburg as he was interred.
The literary community as mentioned was in full force and many had given their initial opinions in the piece that we curated here when he passed on. There was also an outpouring of emotion from his contemporaries across the continent. Here are three that we were able to access from Wole Soyinka, Ama Ata Aidoo, and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.
This poet is not for mourning. Willie was a prince of Africa’s lyric realm. We came to know him at a time when a continent fought through history’s chains and illusory divisions towards a shared, vibrant identity. The median sector of the last century proved, for many of us, a season of discovery – discovering one another through a creative resolve that never did falter or diminish. All through the dark days of Apartheid, Bra Willie’s was among the most reassuring voices that the flame of the human spirit remained unextinguished, its creative pulse unattenuated. We were grateful for that, and even more grateful that we could celebrate that bond outside bondage, through many more years of unfettered convergence of creative minds.
The personal recollections are always the most persistent, implacable. As a being of unique mould, Willie’s warm humanity, a leprechaun of witty mischief, remains irreplaceable. Yes of course, intimations of loss have commenced, a mounting awareness of a void, and I send my deeply felt condolences to his immediate family, and to our extended clan in South Africa. While the loss is keen, the memories remain fresh, his passage a summons and stimulus for generations to whom the baton is progressively passed. May they prove worthy of their torch bearer, now Laureate Ancestor of the hereafter.
Ama Ata Aidoo
Saying goodbye to you, Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile
It’s naming, Willie. Most of us non-South African friends, colleagues and comrades of yours had decided that since we couldn’t click, we didn’t want to deal with the pronunciation of Keorapetse or Kgositsile. So, we stuck to Willie. Yet now, each of us here or wherever we are today, at this moment in time must surely remember how uniquely and affectionately you pronounced our names. Like nobody else did on this earth. That included our families, our other friends, comrades and colleagues, and also transcended wherever our names came from: how simple or how difficult. I definitely remember how you used to call me. It was with complete acceptance, affirmation, love, and a sense of ownership. Whenever you called us it was as though each name came on an ermine cushion encrusted with diamonds, gold, tantalum, tungsten and any of those precious minerals that our leaders daily gift away to those who don’t even need them as much as we do.
Of course, the opposite was true of the names of adversaries. Willie, nobody rolled out the word ‘Boer’ with a feeling of utter exasperation, outrage, and rejection as you did. No, never with hatred. Because, though nobody’s angel, you were not even capable of that nihilistic emotion.
Then there was that forever smile around your lips, as well as that twinkle in your eyes, with which you dealt with life and it’s chaotic details: private, public, comic, or tragic. Whether it was in New York, London, Hamburg or in Jo’burg just 2 years ago, you brought the full measure of life to everything: with your great poetry above all, and a sense of life that is fully and completely lived.
Keorapetse, you poet of our struggles, of us in the wilderness, of us triumphant, of us at the dawn of what we still trust is our new world.
I suspect that quite often in your life, you had heard from people who were meeting you for the first time say, “oh! I thought you were a tall big man”. And they were right, Willie. Because, you were one of the tallest and biggest humans who had ever walked on this earth.
We shall miss you Willie, but thankfully, only in terms of the physical aspects of your being. Beyond those, we have our memories and your incredible poetry…We shall miss you.
We miss you already, Willie.
Ngugi Wa Thiong’o
When I heard the sad news of the passing on of my brother, Prof Willie Kgositsile, my first reaction was what?
I shall never hear his joyous laughter again?
From the moment, I first met Prof Kgositsile in New York, USA, during his days of exile and dreams of home, I felt as if I had known him all my life. Later, in a moment of dreams turned reality, he received me in an apartheid free South Africa, for which he had fought all his life. We could not escape the irony: he was back home; I was now in exile from home. He welcomed me on behalf of himself and also as one of the leaders of the Congress of South African writers. He even arranged for my first meeting with Mandela in the ANC Offices in Johannesburg. Mandela was then Head of the party but not yet the President of the country. Kgositsile accompanied me on my tour of the country in support of the new democratic optimism.
Brother Kgositsile was Pan-Africanist through and through. Africa and the Black experience of life all over the world were always in his mind and his spoken words. Even today, in the USA, he is still revered as one of the leading members of the Black Arts Movement of the sixties alongside other black writers like the late Amiri Baraka, and the still living Sister Sonia Sanchez. On the Continent, he is revered as among the leading poets of Africa. In Kenya, they think of him as a Kenyan for the years he taught at Nairobi University. Wherever he was, under whatever conditions, his personality and talent always shone.
I think of Brother Kgositsile, I want to smile. When I read his poetry, I want to shout hope. When I think of his life and work, I want to live and fight and struggle for a more humane world. But most of all I want to celebrate life. For him, Celebrating life meant caring for it, fighting for its expansion to include the least among us. I believe that even now his spirit is watching us, urging us to celebrate life. There, with our other revered ancestors that include, Alex la Guma, Dennis Brutus, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Nadine Gordimer, Zeke Mphahlele, Mandela and Nkrumah, Kgositsile is being welcomed with the words:
In his life and work, he fought for the rights of all peoples to adequate food, water, clothes and shelter, in deed for their right to light and joy, and his poetry voiced that vision.
His spirit of love and laughter and hope dwells among us. Thank you my brother.