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Keorapetse William Kgositsile (1938 – )

The Order of Ikhamanga in

Keorapetse William Kgositsile (1938 – ) Awarded for:
His excellent achievements in the field of literature and using these exceptional talents to expose the evils of the system of apartheid to the world.
Profile of Keorapetse William Kgositsile

Keorapetse William Kgositsile, recipient of South Africa’s National Poet Laureate in 2006, was born in Johannesburg in 1938.

Author of nine collections of poetry, Kgositsile has been honoured with many awards, including in the United States of America (USA) where he spent long years in exile. An activist poet impacted on by the conditions of apartheid injustice, Kgositsile’s themes engage struggle for assertion of self and his verse is said to uniquely combine indigenous South African and black American traditions.

Kgositsile grew up in a small backyard shack in a white suburb and was imbued with a driving urge for self-expression.

He began writing while still at school, including Matibane High School in Johannesburg and others around the country, but only seriously considered writing as a profession when a former teacher affirmed him as having the talent for it. At the time, Kgositsile was jumping from one odd job to the next.

Kgositsile landed a job with the anti-apartheid publication, New Age, contributing poetry and journalistic reports to it.

In 1961, at a time of blanket repression that included efforts to close New Age, Kgositsile went into exile under the auspices of the African National Congress (ANC), of which he was by now a prominent member. He went first to Tanzania where he wrote for Spearhead magazine.

Kgositsile left for the USA the following year to study at a series of institutions, including Lincoln University, the University of New Hampshire and the New School for Social Research, reading as much black literature as he possibly could.

He undertook a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Columbia University where he published his first collection of poems, Spirits Unchained. The collection earned Kgositsile the Harlem Cultural Council Poetry Award and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Award.

After graduating from Columbia in 1971, Kgositsile remained in New York, teaching and pioneering poetry readings as performance art in downtown clubs as part of the Uptown Black Arts Movement.

In the same year, he published what is regarded as his most important book, My Name is Africa. Jazz, central to black American culture, is embedded in the substance and rhythm of Kgositsile’s poetry.

Kgositsile also became active in theatre while in New York, founding the Black Arts Theatre in Harlem to give a militant voice to black referential experience and aspirations.

Kgositsile can claim in the 1960s to have introduced the likes of Paula Giddings and Toni Morrison to the works of Martin Carter, the eminent Guyanese poet of protest, resistance and anti-British imperialism.

In 1975, Kgositsile returned to Africa to teach at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. He was married to Baleka Mbete.

Resuming his ANC activism, he founded its Department of Education in 1977 and its Department of Arts and Culture in 1983.Kgositsile also taught widely in Africa, including in Kenya, Botswana and Zambia.

Though banned in South Africa, the South African-based Congress of South African Writers managed to publish, in the period between apartheid and democracy, a collection of his poems for the first time in his home country, When the Clouds Clear.

Kgositsile has also written a book that teaches the art and craft of poetry. In July 1990, after 29 years in exile, Kgositsile returned to South Africa, a hero to young black writers. He received the National Poet Laureate Award in 2006 for the contribution of his poetry to society which, as Kgositsile believes, contributes to the intellectual, emotional and spiritual dimensions of life.

Keorapetse William Kgositsile defied apartheid odds to become one of the most accomplished poets not only in South Africa but across the African continent.

Kgositsile is currently the special adviser to the Minister of Arts and Culture, Dr Pallo Jordan, and continues to speak artistic truth as poet-philosopher.
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