Our National poet laureate Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile passed away on the 3rd of January 2017 at the age of 79. Bra Willie, as he was affectionately known, was a world-renowned poet, and political activist. He made an immense contribution to the struggle for liberation in South Africa through his literary endeavours and was also at the forefront of the Black Arts scene during his years in exile.
The ever smiling, soft-spoken giant, with his trademark sailors hat and sling bag was revered across the world and across generations. While in the U.S. A, Bra Willie was at the forefront of the iconic Black Arts Movement and was actively involved in the Jazz and poetry movement. The Last Poets, considered the Godfathers of hip-hop music, adopted their moniker from a poem penned by Prof Kgositsile.
South African poet Lebo Mashile had this to say about Bra Willie:
“Bra Willie’s contribution spans continents, it spans generations, it spans genres of arts. He is a living link between the writes of the Harlem Renaissance, the jazz movement in America and in South Africa, the black arts movement, the Modupi arts movement and also the wave of poets who have emerged post-democracy. There are few people who are able to make those kinds of connections, artistically and personally in one lifetime. He was extraordinary and so humble.”
In a statement released by the South African Parliament it stated: “Through his sharp and progressive pen, he contributed in cutting open the oppressive blanket of the apartheid system to keep the liberation spirit burning in the country and abroad.”
Prof Kgositsile published 10 collections of poetry and was the recipient of numerous literary awards. These include the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, the Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award, the Conrad Kent Rivers Memorial Poetry Award, and the Herman Charles Bosman Prize.
Prof Kgositsile was also the recipient of the Order of Ikhamanga Silver (OIS), “For excellent achievements in the field of literature and using these exceptional talents to expose the evils of the system of apartheid to the world.”
Prof Kgositsile was a beautiful humble soul. Always inviting, always encouraging. A literary giant. A walking library. A liberation struggle stalwart. A poet from the highest upper echelons. And he belonged to all of us and, through his interactions with all of us, made sure we knew that we were all his.