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Jordan: Inauguration of KW Kgositsile as Poet Laureate (08/12/2006)

8th December 2006


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Date: 08/12/2006
Source: Department of Arts and Culture
Title: Jordan: Inauguration of KW Kgositsile as Poet Laureate

Speech by Minister of Arts and Culture, Mr Z Pallo Jordan, at the inauguration of KW Kgositsile as Poet Laureate, Bloemfontein

The poet whom we are honouring tonight is among a generation of African writers, poets and scholars who came into their own in exile. Though he regularly boasts about his age, we consider each other contemporaries. Our generation had the good fortune to have experienced our adolescence during a decade when the crisis of colonialism in Africa and Asia was fast maturing.

In both our own country and in the rest of the colonised world the oppressed peoples were asserting themselves through mass struggles of an unprecedented scale. In a number of instances these culminated in wars of liberation in Malaya, in Vietnam, in Kenya and in Algeria.

South Africa was no exception to this trend. Over a 10-year period commencing with the adoption of the programme of action by the African National Congress (ANC) in 1949, the liberation movement mounted successive waves of mass struggles, the Defiance Campaign of 1952, the Congress of the People in 1955, the stay at home strikes that came virtually every year, the bus boycotts in Evaton and Alexandra, the women's anti-pass campaign, the pound a day strike and others with a lower profile.

The leavening of this upsurge was the growing self-confidence of the oppressed peoples, "the wretched of the earth" as Franz Fanon termed us, were visibly casting off the subservience of ages and taking their destiny into their own hands. No intelligent young person worth his/her salt could stay aloof from such momentous events. Willie joined the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) during these stirring years.

On leaving high school he found employment as a journalist with "New Age," a weekly that had been serially banned by the racist regime. It had first been known as "The Guardian" until it was banned in 1952. It re-appeared as "The Clarion," retained that title till 1953 when it was banned only to re-emerge as "Advance" which was published until mid 1955 giving way to "New Age" when it was again banned.

Under a superb editorial team that included Brian Bunting, Ruth First, Govan Mbeki and MP Naicker, working alongside names that would become legendary, Joe Gqabi and Robert Resha and rubbing shoulders with the likes of Can Themba, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi and other emergent African writers, Willie Kgositsile was initiated into the craft of journalism in Johannesburg. I have no doubt that it was that rigorous apprenticeship that moulded him into the gifted wordsmith he matured into in later years.

Kgositsile left South Africa in 1961 travelling through Botswana to what was then Tanganyika where he was drawn into the external mission of the ANC under Oliver Tambo. In Dar-es-Salaam he was among the fortunate few who were able to find employment, working as a journalist for the newsletter, "Spearhead" edited by Frene Ginwala. It is testimony to the prescience and foresight of the editor and her team that many of the issues of an African Renaissance, African economic independence and political unity that appear on the continent's current agenda were flagged in "Spearhead" as early as 1962 and 1963.

From Dar-es-Salaam Kgositsile travelled to the United States of America (USA) on a scholarship. That is where I first encountered him.

As I recall it was a Saturday afternoon during the Easter vacation in 1964. I had driven from Madison, Wisconsin where I was studying to New York. The focal point for virtually all South African students in the USA was a basement flat which may one day deserve a blue plaque as some sort of heritage site, 310 West 87th Street, in Manhattan. I rang the bell and out came am elfin figure with a wisp of a beard:

"So, who are you?" he enquired.

Recognising him immediately as a South African I responded, "Heyt daar brikeid, ek soek ou Gwangwa."

And thus began a relationship which has endured more than four decades.

We still have to record those decades we spent in exile in various parts of the world. The chapters covering the United States (US) could well be amongst the most colourful. The contingent, who arrived in the US as students during the early to mid-60s, was probably the first large group of South Africans to arrive in the US. And there is no doubt about it we took the US by storm! Scattered among a number of universities and colleges most of them clustered along the east coast wherever we were the South Africans left an indelible impression. Assertive, some would even say pushy, politically engaged and with a fierce sense of identity we inserted ourselves into various facets of the US cultural and political scene with the primary purpose of mobilising solidarity with the struggle at home.

I am not about to divulge any of the truths that will emerge when we finally write the definitive account of the exile years. Suffice it to say that Willie Kgositsile what he said, wrote and did during those years in the US will feature very prominently both for the mirth it occasioned and as a record of the growth of one of South Africa's leading poets.

The 1960s in the US and in other parts of the world were years of political ferment. The struggle of the African-Americans for their basic human rights was reaching a crescendo; the struggle for world peace had become particularly acute following the Cuban Missile crisis and in the midst of the American war of aggression in South East Asia. The universities we were attending were the sites of much of this activity. These movements in turn stimulated complimentary cultural movements, affecting music, theatre and especially literature. It was the sort of fecund environment that encouraged budding talent to blossom.

Kgositsile found a niche among a throng of African-American literary and cultural figures who were wrestling with the strategic and aesthetic dilemmas thrown up by the struggles raging all around us in the Americas and the third world. Among them were figures such as the poet and critic, Leroy Jones, who later took the name Amira Baraka; the cultural activist, Norman Kelley; the writer, Lawrence Neal; the jazz aficionado and historian, AB Spellman and many others. It was in that literary milieu that the poet who had been struggling to come out first showed his head. In poetry readings, literature workshops and the interminable discussions so loved by young intellectuals, he honed his skills and produced his first anthology, "Afrika is my Name" in the late 1960s.

From then on the ever active and open mind of Kgositsile was regularly visited by the muse, inspiring a stream of poetic eloquence that has earned him laurels not only in the USA but in Africa, Asia, Latin America, as well as Europe.

But Willie Kgositsile was not only a poet. He was also a political activist of long standing. To say that his poetry was always highly political is not to suggest that he sacrificed aesthetics for politics. All too often the quest to express oneself politically has tempted writers and musicians to descend to the level of the political propagandist. Kgositsile sarcastically dismissed a few such efforts of the late seventies as "MK, AK bullshit!" He could afford to say so because after his return to Afrika after 1976, he was probably one of the best examples of a truly engaged poet who like Mao Zhedong and Pablo Neruda had mastered the art of producing politically inspired poetry that did not compromise poetics to make a political statement.

Willie's return to the continent coincided with the rising tide of mass mobilisation here at home. He arrived in Dar-es-Salaam shortly after the Soweto uprising which produced a stream of young people in search of education and or the political and military skills required to overthrow the apartheid regime. He was immediately drawn into the nascent Department of Arts and Culture of the ANC. It was that Department working in close co-operation with the internal reconstruction unit of the Politico-Military Commission (PMC), that later had him posted to Botswana having secured him a post at the university there.

It was in the latter location that Willie was able to creatively combine his varied talents, as political activist, poet, professor of literature and under-ground organiser. He was central to both the trend setting Gaborone and Culture in Another South Africa (CASA) conferences that the ANC organised in 1982 and 1987, respectively. We shall be marking the 20th anniversary of the latter CASA conference in Amsterdam next year.

The title "poet laureate" has an ancient lineage in African society. This is a title its recipient earned not solely by poetic excellence but also by his/her public spirited contribution to society at large. I have regularly had occasion to wince when hearing reference by the uninformed to 'praise poets,' the incorrect and culturally charged mistranslation of the term "Imbongi." I find this particularly disturbing when committed by Africans themselves who seldom weigh the hidden meanings in such mistranslated terms. The traditional "Imbongi" was anything but a praise-singer. True, poets would heap praises and laurels on the historic figures whose actions they thought praise worthy. But an imbongi could be more scathing and denigratory than even the sharpest modern political cartoonist! The examples of this are legion and for the life of me I cannot understand why African literary critics appear to have missed it. An imbongi had the unquestioned licence to employ every known literary and poetic device to mock, jeer, castigate and criticise anyone in his community from the king down to the lowliest subject. Pre-colonial African societies accepted this as one of numerous checks on the power of rulers.

An imbongi who shirked that responsibility would be regarded as either weak or lacking in public spirit.

Willie Kgositsile has more than earned the title we bestow on him today. Like the traditional bard he has been unsparingly and rigorously critical when it was necessary about the performance of Africa's leadership and statesmen. Thanks to that sharp tongue he has often been characterised as an "unguided missile." But he is at the same time one of the most enthusiastic advocates and defenders of political tolerance, rooted in an appreciation that truth is elusive and that it can only be sought in an environment of untrammelled contestation and debate among differing opinions. Like any sensible 20th century intellectual he is also a secularist who nonetheless values pluralism for its intrinsic value.

Speaking at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, two years ago, amongst other things I remarked that, "Many modern African writers have portrayed the dilemma posed by modernity as tragic. But the most far sighted among the generation of writers, artists, poets and playwrights who came into their own immediately before and after the Second World War demonstrated how to resolve this contemporary riddle of the sphinx. Rather than wallowing in their alienation or seeking refuge in the past, they reintegrated themselves with the common people by active engagement in political and social struggles for freedom, independence and progress."

As we march into the third millennium that is the object lesson that African intellectuals must derive from our 20th century experience.

Keorapatse Willie Kgositsile is firmly rooted in that tradition. He has dedicated himself to the struggle for freedom and his poetry to the creation of a better world. Such a man deserves the title Poet Laureate.

Issued by: Department of Arts and Culture
8 December 2006


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