It was a packed house at the John Kani Theatre at the Market Theatre complex when artists, politicians, academics, social activists and ordinary folk gathered to celebrate the life of South African poet laureate, Keorapetse William Kgositsile, popularly known as Bra Willie.
Opening the memorial celebration, renown poet and co-programme director for the event, Lebogang Mashile said, ‘When I look around this theatre today, I see a gathering of some of the best creative and political minds in our country.’
Throughout his life, Bra Willie possessed a remarkable ability to bring people together – people from all walks of life; and this was so very evident in the diverse audience that had gathered at the Market Theatre to pay tribute to his life and works. A message from poet and photographer Iris Dawn Parker summed it all up as she held back her tears, ‘Bra Willie was an alchemist!’
With the direction of the Market Theatre’s Artistic Director James Ngcobo and under the baton of programmes directors, renown poet Lebogang Mashile and Market Theatre Foundation Chairman Kwanele Gumbi, the three-hour memorial service was a remarkable celebration of a man who touched so many lives with his words and wisdom.
Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, poet and close associate of the late Bra Willie, wrote on her Facebook page after the memorial service at the Market Theatre, ‘I have been healed by the generous presence of the Kgositsile family, encouraged by the large number of people paying their respects. In this terrible loss may we find the mending of friendship, the rediscovery of comradeship, a shadow of hope.’
The memorial service at the Market Theatre was more than a reading of poems and singing of songs. It was a deep reflection of the role that Bra Willie had played as a public intellectual, politician and a shaper of South Africa’s cultural landscape. Poets and artists reflected on his life with more than just nostalgia. It was an afternoon of critical reflection and analysis.
‘At the artists’ memorial for our poet laureate at the Market Theatre, academics were singing and the poets were delivering cutting analyses and making us cry anyway. The singers and the musicians and dearest soul who raised his arms for that therapy we call art! And we who are elders were told to make way for the young. And be careful what you ask for. Our tongues are hard-won,’ continued De Villiers.
Poet Vangile Gantsho received a rousing standing ovation for her poem, ‘I Expect More From You’, which provided a deep analysis of just how Bra Willie’s struggles have been derailed by politicians whom she hoped would have done so much more. Before Gantsho performed her hugely acclaimed poem she took to the stage announcing, ‘Some years ago when speaking got me into trouble, it was Prof Kgositsile who reminded me that speaking out was important.’
Gantsho’s rendition of her poem was certainly one of the most powerful pieces of ‘performance poetry’ staged at the Market Theatre in a long time. It was delivered with an immense commitment that went straight to the heart. It brought a lump to the throat and it resonated with every fibre of one’s being. It was also probably one of the most significant summaries of what Bra Willie expected from everyone who he frankly, but always charmingly, held accountable.
In the 79 years of his life, Professor Kgositsile touched the lives of many through his poetry and political activism. In his lifetime, he mentored a countless number of cultural practitioners, academics and political activists.
‘A great tree has fallen. Death has robbed us of your humility and infectious smile. You are immortalised through your piercing words, searching intellect and teachings. You were an everyday example of soft power, engaging, forever learning and teaching young people. To know and witness your colossal contribution to our struggle, literary world and our ache for dignity and prosperity – is your greatest achievement and legacy. The power of your example shall remain an inspiration and compass to us as the next generation leaders,’ was the opening lines from a message delivered by Kwanele Gumbi.
Keorapetse Kgositsile went into exile in 1961. In his three decades of exile, Kgositsile continued to fight injustices through his poetry, teachings and publications. He lived in several countries including the US, Botswana, Tanzania and Kenya. Upon his return to South Africa following the jettisoning of the apartheid regime in 1994, he worked with several academic and government institutions.
Three years earlier to the date of Bra Willie’s memorial service, he was at the Newtown Precinct to pay tribute to the memory of the legendary poet, playwright, novelist, essayist and activist Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). He died on January 9, 2014. There is no doubt that Amiri Baraka will be gathering the celestial world to welcome Bra Willie as he did when Bra Willie was honored by the Black Arts Movement in the USA in 2012.
Though he may be gone from this world, his spirit will continue to inspire generations. The words of poet Wally Serote sum it up, ‘We will listen to the breeze where you have left your voice and wisdom.’