January 9, 2018
Keorapetse Kgositsile, lauded South African poet, has died
by Michael Barron
Only a week into the new year, and people are already leaving us to experience it alone. Last Wednesday, Keorapetse “Bra Willie” Kgositsile, the only poet laureate in South Africa’s history and a lauded activist, passed away in Johannesburg, of an undisclosed illness. He was seventy-nine.
Born in Johannesburg, Kgositsile experienced Apartheid at an early age, and it would have a lifelong influence on his work. His first writing job was as a contributor to the outspokenly anti-Apartheid newspaper New Age. After the government shut the paper down in 1961, Kgositsile was forced into exile, heading first to Tanzania, then to the United States to study at Columbia University. He flourished there, publishing several collections of poetry and becoming involved in the burgeoning Black Arts Movement. He befriended fellow poets such as Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks, who wrote an introduction to his collection, My Name Is Afrika (1971). The renowned black poetry collective The Last Poets took their name from a passage in Kgositsile’s writing:
When the moment hatches in time’s womb, there will be no more art talk. The only poem you will hear will be the spear point pivoted in the punctured marrow of the villain. Therefore, we are the last poets of the world.
Kgositsile returned to South Africa as a hero in 1990, after twenty-nine years in exile, to help the nation rebuild itself under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, while promoting equality for its black citizens. He was married four times, including to Melba Johnson Kgositsile, an activist for diversity in children’s books, with whom he had a daughter, Ipeleng Kgositsile, a writer with bylines in Vibe, Essence, and other publications. In 1994, only four years after his return to South Africa, Kgositsile fathered another child with a UCLA law professor Cheryl Harris, a boy named Thebe Neruda Kgositsile who would grow up into the widely acclaimed rapper Earl Sweatshirt. The two reportedly had a complicated relationship, which Kgositsile addressed in his deeply personal “Random Notes to My Son.”
While Kgositsile often visited the United States, he always returned to South Africa, where in 2006 he was appointed poet laureate. To date, he is the only South African to have held this position.
Michael Barron is an editor at Melville House.