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by Bridget Boakye, at 10:22 pm, January 04, 2018, History

South Africans mourn Poet Laureate, Keorapetse William Kgositsile, who died two days after New Year

Professor Keorapetse William Kgositsile

Keorapetse William Kgositsile, the South African poet and political activist, popularly known as Bra Willie, died yesterday, January 3, 2018, at the age of 79.

Kgositsile was an influential figure in the Black literary scene across the African Diaspora, and his prolific work both in the United States and across Africa spawned a generation of black writers and activists across the world.

Born in 1938 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Kgositsile’s early experiences with apartheid motivated his work with the politically charged newspaper, New Age, which later forced him into exile after the government shut down the paper. Under considerable pressure, Kgositsile moved to Tanzania, then to the U.S., where he embarked on his literary career.

In the U.S., he studied at Lincoln University, University of New Hampshire, The New School for Social Research, and Columbia University. He went on to become a prominent figure in the Uptown Black Arts Movement and Harlem jazz scene, and going on to open the Black Arts Theatre in Harlem. He published two books of poetry during this time, the most influential, My name is Afrika.

In 1975, still exiled from South Africa, Kgositsile returned to Africa, teaching in Tanzania, then Kenya, Botswana, and Zambia. He continued to work on issues in South Africa through the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW), the result of which was a collection of poems and When the Cloud Clears, which was his first book to be available in his native South Africa.

After 29 years in exile, Kgositsile returned to South Africa in 1990 and was a vocal and active political and cultural activist, serving as the vice president of COSAW. In 2006, he was inaugurated as South Africa’s National Poet Laureate and in 2008, the National Order of Ikhamanga, Silver, 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”.

His former wife, Baleka Mbete, is speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa and chairperson of the African National Congress. His daughter Ipeleng is a journalist and fiction writer who has written for Vibe and Essence magazines. His son, Thebe Neruda Kgositsile, known as Earl Sweatshirt, is a popular rapper of the group Odd Future.

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