16 January 2018

South Africa: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa - Eulogy At Official Funeral of Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile

Photo: NationalBookWeek/YouTube
Poet Keorapetse Kgositsile.
press release

Eulogy by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the special official funeral in honour of Prof Keorapetse Kgositsile, Marks Park, Johannesburg

Programme Director,

Ministers and Deputy Ministers,

Premier of Gauteng, Mr David Makhura,

Mrs Baby Kgositsile and the family,

Comrades, friends and compatriots,

When our Kgositsile penned, 'My Name is Afrika', we knew that neither exile nor death had the power to uproot his umbilical cord buried at the sacred kraal of Dithakong in Mafikeng where the spirit of his grandmother, Madikeledi, jealously guards all the children of the village.

When we heard that Africa's last original poet left us for the world of Mazisi Kunene, Pablo Neruda and Agostinho Neto, we said not our Kgositsile, because he crosses borders without leaving.

The Kgositsile we know said the people and jazz music of Harlem reminded him of the marabi, mbaqanga and African Jazz Pioneers in the freehold townships of Sophiatown and Alexandra.

Today we must say it is well with our soul because this nephew of Bra Tholo at Lomanyaneng, this protégé of Setswana teacher DPS Monyaise at Madibane High, has again returned to the land that sings who he is.

We of his kin in the ANC and the SACP know that as we wake from our sleep to pick up his revolutionary pen, he will whisper in our ears words of hope and encouragement from Oliver Tambo and JB Marks.

We will raise our fists and get to work singing - Mayibuye!

The brave and indestructible poet of the South African revolution will, to the bitter end, remain our nation's light and sacred hope.

The poor and downtrodden will look in the mirror and say, we are of the seed of royalty, the proud progeny of Kgositsile.

Like the raging fire in his honest and uncompromising words, we will say, death and destruction unto all systems that perpetuate white supremacy and the normalisation of centuries of black pain.

Reconnecting with his poetry and song, we will tell our children that our ancestors' dream of restoring our humanity can no longer be a dream deferred.

In the culture workshops and poetry trenches where Kgositsile led his word battalions, exploiters of the land shall discover that "June 16, the year of the spear" continues with Lebo Mashile, Kgafela oa Magogodi, Sandile Dikeni and Lesego Rampolokeng.

We will take our oath of life and existence - our commitment to return the land to our people.

We will not fail the hopes of Bra Willie, Mandla Langa, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Abigail Kubeka and their generation.

And all those who have been entrusted to lead our people, we will do well to honour Kgositsile by putting arts and culture at the centre of nation building, identity formation and economic renaissance.

We promise our departed brother that we will give new life to the revolutionary assertion that culture is a weapon to create a just and humane society.

In his honour, we must revive the people's cultural journal, Rixaka, to demonstrate as he did that art is an affirmation of life as creative force.

We, who must now lead his movement, would do well to remember his counsel that, "without culture and the arts, chances are there would not even have been a political organisation."

We would do well to remember that, "the ANC as a liberation movement at best was an organised political expression of a cultural alternative to the culture of apartheid and colonialism."

In paying tribute to him, we must spare no effort in raising our youth - black and white - to grow up to support his vision of pan-Africanism and international solidarity with Africans in the diaspora.

In his honour, we must wage a struggle against forgetting.

This is a struggle to remember that a people's collective memory is a potent weapon against oppression, European mimicry and neo-colonialism.

We must remember to imagine new and better ways of seeing, experiencing and living.

We must remember not to be prisoners of the past, but to be transcendental prophets of hope.

As Kgositsile puts it in his poem, "No Boundaries":

With informed hope

and resolve we must know

how to move forward to a landscape

where our dreams cannot be turned into nightmare,

where our dreams are always in sight,

where we must again

redden the blackest folds

of our memory and intent.

Indeed, our name is Afrika.

We are descendants of Keorapetse Kgositsile.

If we betray our people, if we turn the dreams of the downtrodden into a nightmare, we know that the spirits of his long departed friends - Can Themba, Es'kia Mphahlele and Lewis Nkosi - will rise from the graves to trouble our peace.

As we begin this year of great hope for all South Africans, we will never disappoint in keeping the dreams of our nation in sight.

Family, friends and compatriots,

Today we pay homage to an extraordinary South African who devoted his life to the service of humanity.

Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile, fondly called 'Bra Willie', was an internationally acclaimed poet and an activist who leaves a great legacy in both our cultural and political landscapes.

He was a multidimensional individual whose activism transcended different realms of human endeavour.

Today, we celebrate the life of a poet, a teacher, a father, a husband, an MK combatant, an ANC cadre, a servant of the people and a consummate intellectual.

We celebrate the life of a selfless man who contributed immensely to the development of his society.

He was a poet who knew that as a cultural worker he had a responsibility to employ his voice to speak against the injustices of the world.

He argued, in his paper, "Culture and Resistance in Southern Africa" that:

"The artist is both a participant and an imaginative explorer in life. And the struggle for national liberation is an integral part of our life now, and in it there is no such creature as a revolutionary soloist."

Bra Willie's life was the manifestation of this assertion.

He was among the pantheon of writers who used their pen to fight against the injustices of apartheid.

He associated himself with people's resistance struggle from an early age, dating as far back as the 1950s, when he became a member of the ANC.

He found a platform for articulating the anxieties of his people on the pages of the New Age newspaper, where he worked alongside one of our most illustrious martyrs of the liberation struggle, Ruth First.

He wrote politically incisive articles, which made him a target of the apartheid regime.

As the political situation was becoming volatile - with the apartheid administration becoming more vicious, enacting draconian laws to suppress the voices of the masses and persecuting those who resisted it - Kgositsile was not deterred.

He continued serving as the mouthpiece of the oppressed.

After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, activists streamed out of the country to wage a fierce fight against apartheid from abroad.

In 1961, the year in which the ANC established its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, Kgositsile was one of the young cadres who was sent into exile.

The leadership of the ANC recognised his potential to be the envoy that would amplify the voice of the liberation movement throughout the world.

Kgositsile left South Africa at the tender age of 23, and only returned to home soil in his fifties after the unbanning of the liberation movement.

He served the ANC with commitment and passion throughout his exile years.

Bra Willie was one of the most trusted cadres of the moment.

He wielded his pen with precision, choosing words that challenged, inspired and provoked.

He worked closely with President OR Tambo, and contributed to several historic documents that informed the ANC's conception of the National Democratic Revolution.

Bra Willie was a humble character who never dwelled on his own achievements and contribution to the attainment of freedom and democracy.

Kgositsile spent a significant number of his exile years in the US, where he established himself as a poet and political activist while furthering his studies.

He was one of the foremost intellectuals and activists that connected the African-American literature and culture in the 1960s.

He was the intercessor of culture and politics.

He was able to straddle the social strata, relating to the young and old, the rich and the poor, the domestic and the international, with ease.

He was a major link between different generations of writers in Africa, the diaspora and the world over.

He bridged the gap between African and Black American culture, writing extensively on poetry and jazz.

The revolutionary group of poets, The Last Poets, was inspired by his words and took its name after one of his poems.

Bra Willie was indeed one of the greatest chroniclers of our time.

His poetry is imbued with a deep sense of compassion.

He masterfully infused into the English language phrases evocative of Setswana idiomatic expressions.

His involvement in the struggle was driven by a genuine desire to fight human injustice as epitomised by apartheid.

As we bid farewell to this son of the soil, let us derive comfort from the realisation that he lived his life to the fullest and leaves a lasting legacy in our cultural landscape.

He is the flame that burned bright in our darkest hour, illuminating and informing the world about the plight of oppressed South Africans.

It is often said that great prophets are never revered in their own communities.

While Bra Willie was renowned internationally, particularly in the US, it took long for him to be equally celebrated on home soil.

This anomaly - a result of the tyranny of exile - has been corrected in recent years, most notably in the bestowal on him in 2006 of the status of South Africa's Poet Laureate.

His passing should be a salient reminder of the important role that poets, writers and other artists play in our society.

We must do more to sustain the legacy of this icon so that future generations know who Keorapetse Kgositsile was.

His passing compels us to ask some important questions of ourselves.

Are we doing enough to recognise and celebrate artists in our midst?

What can we do to ensure that their stories do not vanish?

We must celebrate our artists while they are still alive.

The contribution of poets, writers and other cultural workers should never be diminished.

Their role is as vital as that of the combatants in the trenches or that of political leaders at the negotiating table.

In our unfolding democracy, we need writers and other thinkers to occupy the foremost trenches in our ongoing efforts to respond to the challenges of our historic moment.

Bra Willie was a fervent believer in youth development and nurturing young talents.

He always encouraged the youth to hone their skills to empower themselves.

He believed that by empowering the youth we are empowering the nation.

As the National Poet Laureate, he devoted his time to teaching, imparting skills and knowledge through workshops and public reading, as well as performing poetry across different platforms locally and internationally.

He mentored numerous younger poets, many of whom have become household names today.

The celebration of the life of a departed patriot like Bra Willie is not just an act of commemoration, but is also about the preservation of our heritage and the affirmation of our national identity.

It is through the telling of our stories that we will be able to look back on the road we have travelled, envisage the road ahead and strengthen our resolve to move forward.

Bra Willie remained engaged in political activism even into the democratic era.

He remained active in the structures of the movement, including in his own branch, the John Nkadimeng Branch.

He was active in the Veteran's League and continued to infuse the political discourse with his critical, creative and passionate perspectives.

To the end, his mind was occupied with the challenges of our revolution and the tasks we must undertake to return to the path of justice, freedom and equality.

In one of his recent poems, 'No Serenity Here', he writes:

I fear the end of peace

And I wonder if

That is perhaps why

Our memories of struggle

Refuse to be erased,

Our memories of struggle

Refuse to die

Both in his poetry and in his lived experience, Bra Willie demonstrated his love and care for the next person.

He is remembered as the epitome of humility, frankness, compassion, fortitude and endless wisdom.

His story will be a great inspiration and a point of reference for future generations.

I am told that Bra Willie expressed his desire to have a nationally significant 80th birthday party this year.

Although he passed on before then, I believe that it would be important to fulfil his wishes.

The literary and academic communities, working in close collaboration with relevant government institutions, should consider initiating programmes to celebrate Bra Willie's legacy in what would have been his 80th year.

This can be in a form of public lectures, consolidating his body of work into a single publication, organising a symposium or festivals themed around his works, or establishing a poetry award.

Fellow South Africans,

We may not see his signature smile again.

We may not share another embrace, nor shake hands with him, but his staccato voice will reverberate from beyond the grave.

Even a monster like death cannot silence the voice of a poet.

His words are engrained in our hearts and minds.

His wisdom is imprinted in the books that he wrote for eternity.

He will continue serving as the guiding light in our collective journey as a nation.

The best tribute we can pay to a poet is to read their poetry - to be transported by their imagery, startled by their frankness and humbled by their sincerity.

Like the struggle, our memories of Bra Willie refuse to be erased.

Robala ka kgotso, namane e tona ya tholo, wena Morolong wa Matebele!

I thank you.

Issued by: The Presidency

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