The death of poet and activist Keorapetse Kgositsile on January 3, 2018, at the age of 79, robbed Africa and the world of a voice of reason, a revolutionary literary figure and spirit of transformative leadership.
Kgositsile was one of the great poets of the 20th and 21st centuries. Known for his unmatched efforts in bridging the gap between African poetry and Black poetry in the United States, his ventures in literature and politics of liberation leave us with lessons. His contribution to freedom of the colonised through art and poetry abounds as the memories we are not bound to keep forever.
Although he started out in the 60’s, Kgositsile gained fame in the 70’s and 80’s— an era when African youths read despite the poverty that was rife at the time. They consciously read books published in the African Writers Series then edited by Chinua Achebe at William Heinemann Publishers in London. This was the first serious publisher of African writers including Wole Soyinka, who was and still is a diehard non-Marxist writer, and Kgositsile, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chris Wanjala, Alex La Guma, Micere Mugo, Okot P’Bitek and very many others were pro-Marxist writers.
Given that Africa was still struggling for liberation from colonial tyranny, pro-Marxist writers had a lot of followers, readers and a passionate audience. This is why Kgositsile was a household name in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria, Barbados, Uganda and others countries that had felt the sting and the pap of life under colonialism.
Kgositsile was among other popular writers who enjoyed substantial readership by African youth of the 80s including Paulo Freire, Pablo Neruda, Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, Alex Haley, Richard Wright and George Lamming. Books by historians such as Walter Rodney and political scientists like Ali Mazrui were also consumed by lovers of African literature in schools and informal public places, out of nothing else but for the genuine need to unchain Africa from colonial tyranny and post-colonial political brutality.
Kgositsile did not remain in the lecture halls and drama theatres. He extended his efforts towards liberating his country from apartheid, getting involved in the active armed struggle. He was the member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, an armed organ of African National Congress. It used guerrilla approaches to push the apartheid governments to recognize freedom of the people of South Africa. Thus, one can say, Keorapetse Kgositsile was active as a literary activist for freedom of South Africa and as an armed fighter for the liberation of South Africa.
He was not alone in these dual duties. A.N.C Khumalo, Arthur Nortje, Dennis Brutus, Alex La Guma, Es’kia Mphahlele, Mazisi Kunene, Nadine Gordimer, Cosmo Pieterse, Barry Feinberg, Joe Slovo, Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Govani Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Mac Maharaj, Winnie Nomzamo Madikizela Mandela and so other sons and daughters of Africa from racial and racial diversities also recognised that freedom from apartheid was a right of the people that could not be postponed.
As a South African, it was obvious for Kgositsile to grow up with the spirit of poetry and songs. As a scholar and an anti-colonial political realist, he was influenced by socialists like Che Guevara, Jean Paul Sartre, Aimé Césaire, Fidel Castro and Vladimir Lenin. His poems have many allusions to Castro’s speech, History Will Absolve Me.
Kgositsile’s poetry is full of energy and fire, full enough to destroy colonial and post-colonial selfishness in politics and government. In poems like Shotgun, anthologized by Cosmo Pieterse in the Seven South African Poets, and Manifesto, anthologized by Barry Feinberg in the Poets for the People, are two clear testimonies to the revolutionary and patriotic energy that guided Kgositsile’s intellectual and artistic efforts.
Kgositsile, in the early 1960s, started writing for New Age but he was forced into exile in the United States because of his active anti-apartheid journalism in 1962. While in the US, he published his first two poetry collections, Spirits Unchained (1969) and My Name Is Afrika (1971).
Upon returning to Africa in 1975, Kgositsile went to Tanzania, where he worked as a professor at the University of Dar es Salaam. The freedom-friendly initiatives of Tanzania’s first President Julius Nyerere had made Dar es Salaam a very attractive international capital city for Marxist intellectuals and anti-colonial scholars. At the time, Ayi Kwei Armah was in Tanzania working on the manuscript of his novel Why are We so Blessed; Walter Rodney was working on How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, and Frantz Fanon, Joe De Graft, and Mphahlele were residents in Dar es Salaam but regular visitors to the University of Nairobi and Makerere.
Kgositsile finally returned home to South Africa when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990. He worked as an advisor to the Minister of Arts and Culture and in 2006 when he was named South African Poet Laureate.
He has left behind a daughter Ipeleng, sons Thebe Neruda (Earl Sweatshirt) and Randy Mafalanka.
I personally am in the bandwagon of those praying for the bereaved Kgositsile’s family, but above all, we are bound to do as his poetry commands us: let our spirit of self-confidence and love for Africa through the struggle for good governance remain unchained.