Over a week ago, South Africa and the world bade farewell to the acclaimed poet, Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile. Professor Kgositsile passed away earlier this month after a short illness. As it has become somewhat of an ugly habit of ours as modern Africans to pay homage to people after they have passed, having failed to honour them while they were alive and conscious, Bra Willie was showered with praises from every corner of South Africa and the globe. To be fair, the South African government through the notoriously snail-slow Department of Arts & Culture tried their level best although at the end of the day it was not enough. The passing of Professor Keorapetse Kgositsile served once again as a brutal reminder that South Africa has neglected the arts, and any nation that does not hold its arts and culture in high regard is doomed.
Professor Kgositsile leaves us when the year is still fresh and innocent, during a time when most of us once again declare our resolutions for the new season. Morolong departed during a period when I had personally declared that for the year of 2018, I have one resolution to fulfil: read more. Given that most of us have never really read his work, except having adopted a poem or two of his, this is a time to dedicate ourselves to the oeuvre of Bra Willie, his peers and South African contemporary writers and poets at large.
In the introduction of Letters on England written by the talented yet tjatjarag Voltaire, the writer was kind enough to share the following about the French philosopher’s upbringing: ‘Though he lived to his eighty-fourth year, Voltaire was born with a weak body. His brother Armand, eight years his senior, became a Jansenist. Voltaire when ten years old was placed with the Jesuits in the College Louis-le-Grand. There he was taught during seven years, and his genius was encouraged in its bent for literature; skill in speaking and in writing being especially fostered in the system of education which the Jesuits had planned to produce capable men who by voice and pen could give a reason for the faith they held.’ As if to rightfully put the power of reading on a pedestal, history will recall that Voltaire was so influential with a pen that he is credited, alongside his fellow philosophers of the time, with starting the French Revolution and the so-called ‘founding’ of what is today known as the United States of America.
Shame on that mind that does not appreciate the pleasure of reading, for it is being denied the joy of experiencing the mysteries and secrets of the universe. It was the poet extraordinaire, Lebo Mashile, who said in the past that reading allowed her to discover a world she never thought existed. This past year of 2017 I hardly read, or I should rather say I did not read enough. This year I have taken a decision to read more, focusing primarily on African literature.
In 2011 I had the pleasure of meeting the novelist, Mme Sindiwe Magona. She had undertaken a project to teach literature to those of us who had a burning desire to write. This exercise took place at the Centre For The Book, just a few metres behind the Parliament precinct in Cape Town. As you would have picked up from my lacklustre writing skills, I missed a lot of those lessons for they happened on a Saturday afternoon, which coincided with my not-to-be-missed appointments with some of Cape Town’s watering holes. However, whenever I did pitch on that Saturday afternoon at Centre For The Book, I would learn a great deal. It was here that I came across the name Keorapetse Kgositsile and immediately adopted his poem, Letter from Havana, dedicated to his wife, as one of my favourite poems. It was there where I also had the pleasure of meeting another great South African writer, James Matthews, on the occasion of his 82nd birthday anniversary. I tell you this my beloved reader, to not only brag to you that I have rubbed shoulders with some of South Africa’s literary cognoscenti – yes, I arrived a long time ago – but more to hang my head in shame. I do not own a single book of any of these three giant names I just mentioned; and I pride myself on owning, not a large, but a decent collection of books. This is disappointing and shameful. I took an informed decision last year to read more in 2018, for I read a little in 2017, but it was not until I rummaged through my mini-library when I realised that my collection on African literature was as satisfactory as quality service from white South Africans in small towns. While I still intend to read more this year, I have decided that my reading more will be focused primarily on African literature.
On the importance of reading, here is James Matthews upon walking into a library for the first time in his existence: ‘My introduction to a library was one of wonderment. I was a messenger at the Cape Times and a reporter asked me to take her books to the library. I was confronted by row upon row of stalls stacked with books. My eyes travelled along the lines of names and titles. None of them were known to me…Tentatively I asked the reporter if I could take out a book for myself when I returned her books the following time. She agreed and a new world opened to me because public libraries were then exclusively for the benefit of whites…’ Upon reading this passage, one gets a sense of joy and happiness experienced by Matthews when he saw tomes and tomes of books stacked in rows of that library. The realisation that within that structure lied so much knowledge must have felt incredible.
In May 29th, James Matthews will celebrate his 89th birthday anniversary. More importantly, and personally, it would be a milestone to watch him turn 90 next year. But I know, at the back of my mind there will come a time when James Matthews is no more. His government, particularly the Department of Arts & Culture, and most importantly, his compatriots, will heap upon his slight shoulders, for he is not a tall man, praises the size of Mount Kilimanjaro. We will once again complain and cry that his prolific and profound body of work was not known and celebrated when he was alive. Like we did with Keorapetse Kgositsile, we will encumber Sindiwe Magona and many more like her in their death with titles of heroes and giants when we failed to do so when they were alive. Fortunately for us, Sindiwe Magona, James Matthews and many of our talented writers are still alive. Let us celebrate them by buying their books and reading their work.
Last year I had to the fortune and pleasure of reading the autobiography of Rre Ramapolo Hugh Masekela, a South African legend we commonly referred to as Bra Hugh; and what a joy it was to read. I am not a great fan of autobiographies, for their protagonists are usually pompous idiots who have no ounce of literary talent. The readers would remember how our beloved Bonang’s book ended up being the butt of jokes after she believed that she could turn a mediocre columnist into a successful ghostwriter. Despite my misgivings about reading autobiographies, I took a chance on Bra Hugh’s book; and I was not disappointed. As I write this column, Bra Hugh is no longer with us, and we are devastated by his passing. I believe and trust that capable writers superior to me – and for the sake of national pride, Bonang’s mediocre ghostwriter – will pay a deserved homage to this proud son of the soil. To pay a deserved tribute to Bra Hugh, I pledge to read more and use the knowledge I gain to grow and improve the continent he very much cherished – Africa. Rest in peace Bra Hugh. Your voice will forever be a melody that makes our hearts sing. Pula!