A tribute to Keorapetse Kgositsile, South Africa’s poet laureate

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Renowned South African poet and liberation struggle hero Keorapetse Kgositsile.
Sunday World/ Tshepo Kekana

Keith Gottschalk, University of the Western Cape

Memories of Keorapetse Kgositsile (1938-2017), or Bra Willie, as he was affectionately known, are of a poet who always had a smile on his face, who exuded gentleness, and was soft-spoken. He died on Wednesday.

In his schooldays Bra Willie (78) managed to get access to African American poets Langston Hughes’ and Richard Wright’s poems. This was no mean feat in apartheid South Africa when schools for African children either didn’t have libraries or they were poorly-stocked, and African students were denied access to literature deemed to be “seditious”. Even my “whites only” school library had no books with African-American poems, still less the apartheid English setwork books.

His first job was working for a 1950s left newspaper, the New Age, which had strong links to the African National Congress. The apartheid regime banned it in 1962.

In 1962 Kgositsile went into exile in the US. His career flourished in Harlem; he gave numerous readings at African-American jazz clubs, and graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University.

Kgositsile published ten collections of poetry. The first was Spirits Unchained (1969). Perhaps the most influential were My Name is Africa (1971), The Present is a Dangerous Place to Live (1975) and When the Clouds Clear (1990).

In 1975 Kgositsile sacrificed his flourishing career to return to Africa to work for the ANC in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In 1977 he founded the ANC’s Department of Education in exile, and in 1983 its Department of Arts and Culture in 1983.

He continued to produce poetry and music, melding African and diasporic poetry influenced by jazz.

Kgositsile’s impact on a generation of South African left literary activists during the 1970s and 1980s was immense. Tattered photostats of his work passed from hand to hand were the samizdat of the oppressed under apartheid, which is how we learnt of his poems.

As soon as apartheid censorship ended in 1990, the Congress of South African Writers brought out a selection of his poems When the Clouds Clear. Willie returned to South Africa from exile, and was elected vice-president of the organisation.

Kgositsile wrote of the 1976 Soweto generation who revolted against apartheid, following the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

In our land fear is dead

The young are no longer young …

South Africa’s youth reciprocated this admiration: again and again a youthful poet would recite from memory a Kgositsile poem, mimicking his voice to perfection. They enjoyed doing this to his face as much as in his absence.

In today’s literary establishment, none of the country’s literati command this sort of respect.

He was honoured with the South African Poet Laureate Prize in 2006.

Kgositsile won several literary awards including the Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award and in South Africa the Herman Charles Bosman Prize, and in 2008 the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) for

excellent achievements in the field of literature and using these exceptional talents to expose the evils of the system of apartheid.

He was married four times. His wives included Baleka Mbete, a fellow poet and currently Speaker of the National Assembly. He is survived by his fourth wife, Baby Dorcas Kgositsile, as well as seven children and grandchildren.

The ConversationThe author is a published poet.

Keith Gottschalk, Political Scientist, University of the Western Cape

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Ursula K Le Guin’s strong female voice challenged the norms of a male-dominated genre

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Once and Future Podcast

Dimitra Fimi, Cardiff Metropolitan University

Hermaphrodite beings, dragon women, ambivalent utopias and sympathetic magic. Just a tiny taste of the fantasy and science fiction worlds created by Ursula K Le Guin, who has died at the ripe age of 88.

Le Guin challenged everything that came before and opened up new ways of doing fantasy and science fiction, but she was also a poet, essayist, historical fiction writer, and children’s writer. In 2017 she was voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters after having won numerous awards, including the Hugo (voted by fans) and Nebula (voted by writers) awards for a single science fiction book twice.

Ursula K Le Guin in 2010.
K Kendall, CC BY-SA

She submitted her first short story for publication at the age of 11, and continued writing prolifically until recently. Her latest book, No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters, a collection of essays about everything, from writing to ageing, was published in December 2017.

She was a strong female voice of dissent within male-dominated genres. She challenged race stereotypes in fantasy and science fiction. She had a long-lasting influence on a younger generation of writers. Le Guin’s work has been iconic for a while, studied at universities, loved by readers, praised by critics.


Anthropological roots and Taoist echoes

Le Guin’s parents were anthropologists. Her father, Alfred Kroeber, established the Anthropology Department at Berkeley and her mother, Theodora Kroeber, wrote the biography of the last remaining “wild Indian” in the US. Le Guin’s alternative worlds were anthropological at their core. Instead of medievalesque hierarchies and politics, kings, knights and “small folk”, her worlds are populated by societies that seem tribal. In her Earthsea cycle, magic is “primitive”, ritualistic and shamanic, connected to the power of language. “True names” can summon and control people, animals, matter, and knowing them gives access to power that can become perilous.

Celebrated: Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, society on the ice planet of Gethen revolves around partly familial, partly tribal groups called “hearths” – and expulsion means sure death from cold. In Always Coming Home, alongside the main narrative, we get ethnographic notes about the customs, myths and rituals of the Kesh tribe.

Principles and beliefs associated with Taoism were also central to Le Guin’s imaginative fiction: non-action, living harmoniously with the self and the universe, respecting the natural rhythms of life. The ying-yang symbol of the balance of opposites is reflected in the “equilibrium” which holds everything together in Earthsea. As Master Hand says: “To light a candle is to cast a shadow.” The same symbol is a powerful metaphor in the harmonious symmetries of The Left Hand of Darkness: male and female, hot and cold, fear and courage.

These elements make Le Guin’s worlds less binary, less based on conflict and resolution, and more mystical, spiritual and – ultimately – refreshingly different to expected norms in science fiction and fantasy. My students often arrive at the surprising realisation that “nothing much happens” in The Left Hand of Darkness. Equally, the Earthsea books don’t focus so much on the standard fantasy trope of defeating a Dark Lord in a great battle, but on changing attitudes and prejudices. The slower pace of Le Guin’s books are part of their success. In a world of fast rhythms and small attention spans, this is a major achievement.

Challenging race and gender norms

But Le Guin’s beautifully crafted prose also had a sharp edge. She consciously set off to question what came before her in fantasy and science fiction, especially in terms of race and gender. She was outspoken about the “colour scheme” of her Earthsea series. She wrote:

I didn’t see why everybody in science fiction had to be a honky named Bob or Joe or Bill. I didn’t see why everybody in heroic fantasy had to be white (and why all the leading women had “violet eyes”). It didn’t even make sense. Whites are a minority on Earth now.

Ged, the main protagonist of the Earthsea cycle, has copper-brown colouring (emulating the Native American complexion), while the white-skinned Kargs are the main antagonists for most of the series. Similarly, in The Left Hand of Darkness the only character from Earth is a black man, and everybody else in the book is “Inuit (or Tibetan) brown”.

Left Hand of darkness: multi award-winner.

As for gender, is there a better example of a “thought experiment” in challenging norms in science fiction than the genderless world of Gethen in The Left Hand of Darkness? Creating an androgynous people, who only become male or female once a month in order to procreate, gave Le Guin the opportunity to write the iconoclastic sentence: “The king was pregnant”, and to also question how language shapes our prejudices.

Even when many later feminist critics claimed that the book hadn’t gone far enough in interrogating sexism, Le Guin publicly admitted in a revised essay that they were right, and that she had not allowed space for homosexuality in her fictional world. To criticise your own work 20 years after publication takes guts and a unflinching belief in your principles.


As for Earthsea, she took it one step further. When it dawned on her that
female magic had been excluded from Earthsea, she returned to her earlier work and changed everything, but without disrupting the coherence and consistency of her originally conceived imaginary world. That is a sure sign of a master in the genre who was able to see her own younger self as entrapped in the cultural and historical moment of writing.

The ConversationUrsula K Le Guin has taught us a different way of reading, a different way of thinking. If you haven’t read Le Guin yet, may I suggest a short story that encapsulates a lot of her political and social concerns, the masterful (if rather disturbing) The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. An imaginary world in miniature, and simultaneously a powerful and memorable “thought experiment”. A micro-capsule of Le Guin’s brilliance. She will be missed.

Dimitra Fimi, Senior Lecturer in English, Cardiff Metropolitan University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.