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South Africans Bid Farewell to Poet Laureate – Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile

Speakers at the funeral service of Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile have remembered him as a dedicated scholar and a passionate teacher in the arts. The 79-year-old died at Milpark Hospital earlier this month after a short illness. Speakers recited quotes from his poems and urged others to read his work.

A giant tree has fallen. Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile’s literary genius and courage paved the way for writers such as Lebo Mashile, Natalia Molebatsi, Koleka Putuma and many others to use the pen of literature in the battle to defeat the evils of racism, patriarchy, homophobia and other hatreds.

 Audre Lorde once described poetry not as a luxury but as a vital necessity of our existence, forming the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the alchemy of transforming personal sentiments into the remedy of shared experiences that allow its readers to pin a name to universal but often unnamed shared experiences.

It is with greatest sadness that we honour Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, a magician skilled in the alchemy of making magic of language.

As a multilayered being and writer, Prof’s numerous works are the formations of many integral parts of the decolonisation project. His numerous, acclaimed acts are daring acts of the “redefining our selves” that the prodigious, literary innovator Thando Mgqolozana often speaks of. He was finally recognised as a poet laureate in 2006 for his services both in poetry and politics. It was in actuality, the long overdue act of recognising one of the chief protagonists in the audacious act of moulding poetry and the language of literature in the shape of black lived experiences. One of the first examples, that poetry is as much ours as it is the domain of long dead white men. Having been exiled during the apartheid era with the subsequent absence from home in the most literal, visceral sense, his poem Anguish longer than sorrow, in which he writes “while I can and say: to have a home is not a favour”, is an indication that the war against injustice wasn’t only on the battlefields but also in literature. Proving true to the adage that the pen is indeed mightier than the sword. The power of the arts in raising awareness and creating powerful conversations regarding injustices and oppression worldwide are poignantly demonstrated in his works and the powerful networks created.

Through this activism and writing, he made a name for himself in New York as one of the Harlem Renaissance poets alongside writers like Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn B Bennett, Gwendolyn Brooks, Marcus Garvey. The Harlem Renaissance poets wrote poetry that was characterised by a focus on the Black American experience and relevant themes such as slavery and racism in an avant-garde, storytelling poetry style that was typical of the jazz age. Professor Kgositsile also embodied the relationship so many of our people have with jazz, showing the powerful ways in which music and poetry can relate and broaden so much more of our vision of poetry and literary criticism, offering new interpretations to the meaning of Africa among his American comrades in arm without assimilating into American culture. His work has made a significant contribution to poetry, academia and culture in both countries and is evidence of what it means to change the world while remaining true to your voice.

In his poem My People No Longer Sing, he spoke beautifully and poignantly about the importance of music in fighting against the system of apartheid and to remember those who have lost their freedoms fighting for our freedoms. He says:

Yes, Mandela, we shall be moved
We are Men enough to have a conscience
We are Men enough to immortalise your song
We are Men enough to look Truth straight in the face

This particular poem is a powerful commentary on the arrest of Nelson Mandela and powerfully captures how such an injustice can be the catalyst for the movement to fight for equal rights and freedom for Black South Africans. Which is what Prof did so powerfully, the power of poetry in capturing powerful moments in history and standing on the right side of justice. Prof Keorapetse’s work is timeless, as is the nature of prodigious talents. He powerfully captures the importance of careful use of our rods, particularly in a moment such as this where there are new and different struggles to fight such as decolonisation and intersectional politics. This is beautifully demonstrated in his poem Random notes to my son, in which he writes:

Beware, my son, words
that carry the loudnesses
of blind desire also carry
the slime of illusion
dripping like pus from the slave’s battered back

A giant tree has fallen. His literary genius and courage paved the way for writers such as Lebo Mashile, Natalia Molebatsi, Koleka Putuma and many others use the pen of literature in the battle to defeat the evils of racism, patriarchy, homophobia and other hatreds rife in our society. Professor Kgositsile rewrote and wrote histories for our self-definition through a lens it may take us many moons to fully appreciate because of the gravity of its vision. For this, if only this alone, we are indebted to him and his legacy for the reimagining of ourselves into the beings we previously only dreamt of. We have so much gratitude for the reclamation of so much of our narratives from the work of pioneers of thought and literature such as Professor Kgositsile.

As literary archivists, we are deeply grateful to Professor Kgositsile for igniting the spark of literature as rebellion and archiving.

Rest in Poetry.

Rest in Power.

Rest in Peace, Professor.

Your words have been immortalised in the chalkboards of our hearts.

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