Farewell Bra Willie, forever the literary legend
Professor Keorapetse William Kgositsile, who died on 3 January 2018, was the official patron of Xarra Books. A regular and loyal customer and a paying guest of our store. Prof Kgositsile had over the years supported, encouraged and contributed immensely to the repositioning of Xarra Books.
The well-versed and well-travelled South African poet and political activist was born in 1938 in Johannesburg, Gauteng, and attended Matibane High School. He was bitten by a writing bug thanks to the influence of great European authors such as Charles Dickens and D.H. Lawrence. A prominent ANC member in the 1960s and 1970s, his writing career kicked off with a stint at New Age, where he contributed poetry and news reporting. Because of the political turmoil (apartheid), he left the country in 1961 to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he worked for Spearhead magazine.
In 1962, he moved to the USA and lived there until 1975. While in the USA, he studied at Lincoln University (Pennsylvania), University of New Hampshire (Durham), The New School for Social Research (New York) and Columbia University (New York). He graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing in 1971 from Columbia University and by the end of that year he had published two poetry collections: Spirits Unchained (1969) and My Name is Afrika (1971). Spirit Unchained was so well received that it earned him the Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award as well as the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Award.
The professor was a jazz lover of note and has seen countless jazz legends such as Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday B.B. King and many others and has mentioned their names in some of his poems. Bra Willie became involved with theater while living in New York and was, in fact, one of the founding members of the Black Arts Theater in Harlem. He returned to Tanzania in 1975, taking up a lecturing position at the University of Das es Salaam after which he taught at several schools in the African continent, including Zambia, Botswana and Kenya. He returned to South Africa in July 1990 after 29 years, the year the late Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black president, was released from prison.
Professor Kgositsile had been back in the land of his birth since then and had received many awards, including the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize, the Conrad Kent Rivers memorial Poetry and the Herman Charles Bosman Prize and more accolades were to come. In 2006, the South African Literary Awards honored him with the South African Poet Laureate Prize, and in 2008, he was bestowed with the Order of Ikhamanga Silver for “excellent achievements in the fields of literature and using these exceptional talents to expose the evils of the system of apartheid to the world”.
“The patron sponsored our development programme to expose, guide, mentor and motivate young black poets and aspiring writers. We wanted to promote the reading of African books and create a stronger African identity,” said Dr. Kays Mguni, the bookstore’s co-founder. “This really is what Xarra Books is all about and the national poet laureate Bra Willie was a natural fit in that agenda. His love for the arts, literature and his contribution to the fight for freedom was unparalleled. His life journey was testimony to that.” “Bra Willie was a leader that has always believed in the Xarra dream and refused to see this flame die. We feel honored and lucky to have been associated with such a human being. We salute you Bra Willie, may your soul rest in peace.”
*Xarra Books has published the professor’s latest offering, Homesoil In My Blood (2017).