It is with a deep sense of shock and sadness that the Thabo Mbeki Foundation and its Patron former President Thabo Mbeki have learnt of the untimely passing away of Professor Willie Keorapetse Kgositsile. Bra Willie, as he was affectionately known among his friends and comrades was born on the 19th of September 1938 in Johannesburg.
Like all Black people in South Africa, his encounter with the viciousness of racism and apartheid came during his formative years as a young boy when he was forced to attend school far from home as he stayed in a “shack at the back of a house in a white neighbourhood.”
Comrade Willie was one of South Africa’s literary giants, poet, revolutionary and internationalist in his approach to the liberation struggle.
The June 16th generation encountered Bra Willie when he was a Professor of Literature at the University of Dar es Salaam and it was from him that most learnt about the vicissitudes and the challenges of exile life. Bra Willie had a way of telling even the most painful experience in a light and humourous way. As a humble person most of the June 16th Generation enjoyed his company and in the process gained a lot from him because of his ability to impart his knowledge with such ease that most of the Soweto generation who joined the struggle in 1976 found it very easy to engage with him.
He was able to express himself and his philosophical outlook to the struggle and the quest for freedom in very simple and easy to understand manner but yet at the same time full of profound meaning. He is reported to have said “in a situation of oppression, there are no choices beyond didactic writing: either you are a tool of oppression or an instrument of liberation.”
In 1961 when the apartheid regime launched its offensive against the liberation forces and its determination to silence any opposition voices such as the New Age where Bra Willie worked, he was forced to leave the country and initially went to Dar es Salaam. Soon after he went to the United States where he studied in a number of universities starting with Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the University of New Hampshire and The New School for Social Research.
During this time his first collection of poems “Spirits Unchained” was published which earned him the “Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award and a “National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Award.” In 1971 he graduated from Columbia University and began teaching in New York.
In the same year he published the collection “My name is Africa” which placed him as an undisputed African American Poet. In his studies Bra Willie paid a lot of attention to African American studies. His artistic approach and philosophical outlook to art is expressed in the statement “There is nothing like art – in the oppressor’s sense of art. There is only movement. Force. Creative power. The walk of Sophiatown Tsotsi or my Harlem brother on Lenox Avenue, Field Hollers. The Blues. A Trane riff. Marvin Gaye or Mbaqanga. Anguished Happiness. Creative power, in whatever form it is released, moves like the dancer’s muscles.”
Here in South Africa comrade Willie was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver in recognition of his excellent achievements in the field of literature. He was also celebrated at the National Poet Laureate.
Comrade Willie used his talent and the power of the pen to wage the struggle against oppression as well as broaden the horizons of knowledge among the African people irrespective of where they were. In this regard it he used his talent to assert African identity, pride and dignity. He will surely be missed by his family, his friends and comrades in the African National Congress as well as our people as a whole.
The Foundation conveys its heartfelt condolences to the Kgositsile family.
MAY HIS SOUL REST IN PEACE.