“This is who I am.” A conversation with Poet Keorapetse Kgositsile
Keorapetse Kgositsile, South Africa’s National Poet Laureate, is considered one of the most significant poets in the Pan-African movement. He was a vocal member of the African National Congress as well as a writer for The New Age, a newspaper that was shut down by the government. Exiled from his home country from 1962 until 1975, Kgositsile became involved in African-American jazz and poetry. Though he returned to Africa in 1975, he remained banned from South Africa until 1990.
While Kgositsile’s early works were noted for their fiery nationalism, his later work has been considered more skeptical, in line with his criticisms of current South African politics.
While in exile, Kgositsile met K. Mensah Wali who was also involved in the African liberation movement and the jazz and poetry scene. Wali is now the Artistic Director of Kente Arts Alliance, an African-American arts organization which provides underserved communities access to the arts and increases the visibility of art of the African Diaspora.
On April 24th, 2012, Kgositsile and Wali met in House Poem, one of City of Asylum’s writer residencies and the office of Sampsonia Way Magazine. There they discussed South Africa’s progress since the end of apartheid, the effects of exile on family, and the relationship between poetry and jazz.
I wanted to delve into your experiences. Where and when were you born?
I was born in 1938, and until after exile I was made to believe I was born in Johannesburg. But it turns out to have been Mafeking. So I grew up mainly between there and Johannesburg, but because my grandmother liked going around the country visiting relatives, everything that I did around the world was a continuation of the way I grew up.
How was the community that you lived in?
Very much like any urban community in an area where people are forced apart. For us it was apartheid, but it could be like anywhere. It could have been Nairobi under English colonialism, or Harlem, in that sense.
When I was in South Africa I saw cramped living situations, and it was completely different from what I imagined. People live in communities with so many residents that they start lining up at the bus terminal three and four hours before they have to be at work.
What is interesting is that this situation developed after 1994, and there’s a very simple reason for that: Because of 1994, people from all over the country thought that there were greener pastures in the urban areas, in big cities, so they came. And then people from all over Africa came too. There is not one country in Africa that is not represented in South Africa by people looking for greener pastures, so the cities are packed to capacity.
I found Cape Town to be similar to Lagos. It’s a city that never sleeps and people come from all over the place, just like New York City. But all this immigration happened less than 20 years ago…
Yeah, because before 1994 people’s movement was strictly controlled. If the police stopped you and asked to see your papers, and they didn’t say that you should be there, you would have committed a crime.
So using Pittsburgh as an example, if you lived in the East End and you were found here in the Mexican War Streets, you would be arrested because you don’t have a permit to be in the area.
It’s important to remember the levels of control and censorship because there are a lot of people who criticize the governments after 1994, saying that even under apartheid the situation was better. They don’t look at the reasons. It was not better. People are not happy to be controlled in that fascist way.
“…there were laws that attempted to control every aspect of human action and interaction, up to who you could laugh with, how you could do it, who you could fall in love with…”
When did you go into exile?
In 1961. I was a 23 year-old, hot-headed journalist. I worked for The New Age at the time, a weekly newspaper published by the South African Communist Party. And I didn’t decide to leave, I was instructed. I didn’t realize that if I didn’t leave I would’ve been in trouble. My colleagues from the paper who didn’t leave right before or right after I left, ended up in detention. My editor ended up getting killed with a parcel bomb.
So where did you go when you left?
When I left I first went to what was then Tanganyika, which became Tanzania. I went to Dar es Salaam [the largest city in Tanzania, formerly Mzizima].
Is there a particular reason why you went there?
Well the African National Congress (ANC) had their offices in Dar es Salaam. It was, at the time, one of the safest places for anyone in the liberation movement to be. It was not just the people from ANC in Dar es Salaam. All the members of the liberation movement had gone there.
How long were you there?
I was there almost a year at a publication called Spearhead, a political and economic journal started by Frene Ginwala. In 1994 he became the first speaker of the National Assembly.
Were you married before you left South Africa? How does family fit in during your exile in the United States?
No, I was not married. Family was practically a luxury. For instance, after my mother died, I didn’t know about it until six years later. There was a friend of mine in New York and occasionally his people would write to him. He would get some letters with portions cut off. And later, after finding out about my mother, they wrote telling him to tell me. That’s just an example, I’m not the only one.
“Given what has piled up over centuries, I don’t think social transformation in South Africa is going to be quick.”
There are many with those types of stories…
Only a few days ago I was telling someone about this guy in Tanzania leading up to 1990. The apartheid security forces had gone to this fellow’s old parents and told them that they had killed him. His parents were very traditional people and they did whatever rituals to bid him farewell. But he was alive.
Then, after the release of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, when we could go back, he couldn’t. His argument was that it would be traumatic for his parents, being that old and traditional, to see their son alive again.
So with all of these experiences in the background, and South Africa supposedly trying to heal from apartheid experience, how did you heal yourself?
I’m not sure I’ve healed. I don’t know if everyone has, or anyone. But I think we were fortunate to have the caliber of leadership we had at the point of takeover. If Mandela had not been president, if men like Sisulu had not been alive, there is no telling what might have happened. I remember at some point trying to explain this to someone who was white and was complaining that, during the negotiations, sometimes Mandela was making impossible demands.
What you have to appreciate is that in the black communities, in the African communities, in the townships, people were complaining that Mandela was bending over backwards to accommodate. But because the people respected his integrity, they listened. Otherwise, there might have been no country today.
They say South Africa’s turnover was a bloodless revolution, but we know there was much bloodshed. What is true is that it could have been a much bloodier situation without the leadership.
Also there are wounds that are deeper than the physical ones. There are scars, emotional tissue, that might take very long to heal, or might never heal.
Absolutely! Now we know about genetic memory, and we can’t deny it. How do you see South Africa evolving from its history?
Given what has piled up over centuries, I don’t think social transformation in South Africa is going to be quick. The simple reason for this is that national oppression, racism, and exploitation along racial lines were carried out to such a degree that race and class were almost synonymous. In addition to that, there were laws that attempted to control every aspect of human action and interaction, up to who you could laugh with, how you could do it, who you could fall in love with, who you could eat with, who you could quarrel with or not quarrel with…every little thing you could think of.
To reverse that, you cannot do it through legislation. All you can do is create the conditions. Legalize, legitimize the human being to live as a human being. You cannot say, “Love like this, laugh like this.” You must create the space for them to develop as human beings. The rehabilitation likely won’t happen overnight.
Well there’s a universal concept that says the pendulum swings the same degree to the left as it does to the right. If it took 500 years to bring it to this condition, it may take 500 years to bring it out.
Hopefully not. Because, unlike the pendulum, people think, and they can plan and make interventions. Hopefully it can be less.
You started out as a writer and now you’re nationally well known and recognized as a poet. How did you come into poetry?
Well it’s a little difficult, because for years I was trying to write stories. I believed I could write fiction. But then I never wrote a piece of fiction that I liked. In fact, in all my years of writing, at the most I might have published three short stories.
And then at some point, I realized the reason I could not write fiction was that, when I was writing creatively, I didn’t grasp reality in such a way that I could explore it in a story-like manner. I grasped it in moving images. So for capturing the images, the poetic form became the most logical, and was easier to deal with and produce.
When you landed in New York, where we met, how did the poetry and jazz connection come into being?
That was automatic, normal, because the separation between poetry and music is artificial. It was imposed deliberately to serve certain interests. Even today among all our poets in South Africa, you could go into the countryside and run into an oral poet who can recite and recite and seamlessly move into singing and come back. There’s no boundary, there’s no separation. Poetry at its best aspires to be music.
I would argue heavily that a musician, the instrumentalist in jazz, has to improvise. I think there’s a mistake some people make, conveniently maybe, about improvisation: Improvisers don’t compose. The thing is, they compose and play all these parts at the same time. To me improvisation is composing and playing at the same time.
I approach my writing like that. I do my thinking away from writing, so when I sit down to write poetry, I take my solo. I literally approach it like a musician approaches his solo. I don’t think, I write. Until it comes out, I don’t know what’s going to be there any more than the next person.
So if it comes out in political terms…
That’s because I am political.
If it comes out in love…
It’s because I also love.
I think what people have to accept is that every time you write, every time you open your mouth and say something, whether you realize it or not, you are saying, “This is who I am.”