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Keorapetse Kgositsile on Exile, Art, and Freedom: “What I write defines who I am”

By Alice Kim, Editor

Keorapetse Kgositsile, a world-renowned South African poet and activist, began his writing career as a journalist for the newspaper, New Age, a leading voice in the struggle against apartheid published from Johannesburg. From 1962 to 1975, he lived in exile in the United States during which time he earned an MFA in poetry from Columbia University and published his first collection of poems, Spirits Unchained, as well as another influential collection, My Name is Afrika. He became established as a poet in the Black Arts Movement, both influencing the movement and being influenced by it. From exile, he later founded the African National Congress’ Departments of Education and Arts and Culture. For years, his work was banned in apartheid South Africa. He returned to his homeland after the fall of apartheid and was inaugurated as South Africa’s National Poet Laureate in 2006.

I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing the South African Poet Laureate last month at the Without Borders conference hosted by the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership. His love of language, his no-nonsense approach to politics, and his big heart were easy to see. Here, Keorapetse Kgositsile shares his unabashed insights on exile, art and freedom.

Alice Kim: All these years, you’ve remained both a writer and a political activist. I’d love for you to talk about the relationship between art and activism, but first, why do you write?

Nikky Finney and Willie Kgositsile

Keorapetse Kgositsile: That’s a very difficult question. I suppose it goes back to one thing: to play with language. My earliest attempts at writing in my mind were not connected with wanting to be a writer. It was just to entertain my friends. But later, with the development of consciousness, with my personal development, at some point, it became important to acquire skills to be able to articulately say what I wanted to say if I believed there was something worth saying. It shouldn’t just be a question of what to say but how to say it. In my young days as a journalist, I think I would credit Ruth First contributing to honing my skills because she was a tough editor. Say for instance, if she wanted an article in the paper, 500 words or 1000 words, no adjectives, no qualifiers. If there was, for instance, anything dramatic, in terms of whatever story you were covering, she would say, use a verb, use an action verb to bring out whatever was happening. That came in very handy because after doing that over and over, you get to a point where you would be able to sit at a typewriter, there were no computers then, and when you stop, you put your last period, it would be 500 words or maybe plus or minus three or four. You would be very close to the exact length of the piece she wanted.

AK: What about your transition from being a journalist to becoming a poet?

KK: Maybe because of the journalism, for a number of years, I believed I could handle prose fiction. I tried to write short stories, but I could never be satisfied with what I produced. Then at some point, I scribbled something I recognized as a poem. I realized that the reason why I couldn’t write stories that could satisfy me was that when I was being creative in terms of writing, I thought in images, not prosaically. Finding out that I could produce poetry, you could say that I found that out almost by accident.

But it is very tricky too. Maybe I shouldn’t say tricky. After exile, I realized there are advantages of poetry, of poems. For those of us banned by the apartheid regime that is almost like being exiled to silence. Because poetry can be memorized, can be passed around orally, it rendered the banning irrelevant. When I returned home, I found there were some younger poets who welcomed me in different parts of the country by reciting my work. Some of them even made me wonder, now when did I record that, because they would mimic my reading and if I wasn’t looking, it actually sounded like me.

AK: Talk about your experience of living in exile. What was that like for you?

Lisa Brock, Willie Kgositsile, and Denise Miller

KK: You didn’t individually decide you were leaving the country; you were instructed to. When I was instructed to leave, I had no idea that I was going to be in exile for as long a time as I ended up being. When I left the country I was twenty-three years old. When I returned I had lived outside the country for twenty-nine years. The first time I went back, it wasn’t a permanent return. It wasn’t welcome by the regime. It was on a temporary indemnity visa kind of thing, valid for three months. When I arrived at the international airport in Johannesburg, immigration security gave me thirty days instead of the original three months. I stayed a little over thirty days and when I left, they actually wrote in my passport, which was the property of a different country, they wrote that I had overstayed.

AK: You were instructed by the leadership of the ANC to leave the country?

KK: One night late October or early November 1961, it was a Friday evening, I didn’t feel like going home after work so I decided to hang around the office and I got in touch with a friend who was white. At the time Africans were not allowed to buy bottled liquor. So I got in touch with a friend to go into a liquor store to buy me something to drink. She did and brought it to the office and I was in the office drinking and reading by myself. When, at some point, the phone rang, and it turned out it was a guy from Tanganyika who actually was English and was anxious to come the New Age offices to talk about something. I gave him directions, he came.

In short, his story was that after he went back, he was going to give up his English citizenship and be a Tanganyikan and join the government as a civic servant. After he arrived in South Africa, he heard the prime minister on the radio say that the new prime minster was going to kick all the whites out of the country when he took over. But that was a lie. He got in touch with a number of newspapers in South Africa to expose that lie. But they wouldn’t touch it. If New Age would publish this story, he would take the risk of giving a ride to anyone from the Liberation movement who had to leave the country urgently. So I called Ruth First and her husband Joe Slovo, who was also part of the leadership of the Communist Party, and they got in touch with the leadership of the ANC. We went to meet in this Indian restaurant that had this partition – it was disguised so that it was only known by some people – it was this place where a mixture of races could meet. And we met there. He told the story, made the offer, and at the end, I’m not exactly sure who announced it, but I was told I should get ready to leave.

AK: What was behind that decision, did you understand why you were being asked to leave the country?

KK: I didn’t at the time. But soon after I left, all of the people who worked for New Age, who did not leave soon after I left, were rounded up. Ruth First was the first 90-day detention. You could be locked up for 90 days without being charged. Hers was extended to 180 days. At the time, to tell the truth, I didn’t think that I had done anything to be any kind of threat to the regime. But apparently, the way they looked at it, yeah.

AK: So you ended up leaving with this man and New Age published his story?

KK: Yeah.

AK: I read that one of your early experiences of apartheid was a conflict with a local white family after you fought a white friend of his who hesitated when other friends refused to join a boxing club that denied you membership. Can you share other early memories that were formative for you?

KK: I think that was the first major one. But also when the apartheid regime declared South Africa a Republic in 1961. The way they saw it they were not a colonial power. They were South African and we ceased to be South African. There used to be public signs for busses: Europeans only, Non-Europeans only. The signs changed from Europeans to “white only” and “non-whites” only. We were never called African. So that’s something that you noticed, the signs changing.

Even before the signs changed, perhaps even when I was like in junior high school, let’s say over here there was a white stop, then a block or two down there would be a non-white one. When I wanted to get on the bus, I would wait between the two and whichever bus came, I would get on it. Until I was old enough to be thrown out of a white bus, I never even thought I was doing anything that wasn’t normal.

AK: Do you remember your first time being thrown out of a white bus?

KK: I don’t remember, but I remember what I did after out of frustration and anger. At the time the milkman delivered milk by the bottle in the white suburbs, and I’d get up early and go to the white areas. I’d collect as many bottles and put them in one spot or actually break the bottles and leave. It was my frustrated little way of trying to get back at them.

AK: You’ve said: “In a situation of oppression, there are no choices beyond didactic writing: either you are a tool of oppression or an instrument of liberation.” Can you explain what you mean?

KK: I think that to start with maybe we have to accept that there are no neutral statements, that every time you open your mouth to say something the chances are when it’s analyzed it’s opposed to some values or it offends some values or it proposes some other values. I don’t think that there is a statement that anyone can make that falls outside those categories. When you write, you cannot be neutral. Otherwise you are deluding yourself or consciously lying, which is not neutral either, hence the didactic thing.

AK: What about the power of poetry?

KK: It is interesting. I’m not too sure if poetry can do much more than boost morale at best or make you feel like the poet has said something that resonates so much. Wow, why couldn’t I have said that myself? But that it can actually act as some kind of guideline for being engaged at the practical level in terms of struggle to make the world a better place, I don’t think it can do that. I think it can help celebrate the creative energies, which are always collective. I think we have to accept its limitations. It can also affirm. It can project your depth of feeling and the values you identify with, but i don’t think it can actually be a weapon.

AK: As an artist, what is your responsibility to further struggles for justice and freedom in South African and around the world? 

KK: I think the role of the artist remains what it has historically been, which is, essentially to explore and celebrate or criticize or try to give moral support. I’m talking about an artist with a sense of social responsibility. I’m trying to say, I think, that products of the heart, like a poem or a piece of music are very limited because they are not like manuals but because they function at a spiritual level.

But an artist who has a sense of social responsibility has the same responsibility as everyone else in society because before anything else – before computers, paint, and brushes – before any of that you are a human being, a member of your society, and therefore you owe allegiance to certain values and that is what you try to express through your art.

AK: Isn’t it important for activists to embrace imagination and creativity?

KK: That is why I’m saying it works at a spiritual level. A song or a poem can move you, but after that you still need a program of action at the practical level. Even after all the inspiration that one can get from the arts, you would need programs of action at the level of practical implementation for that transformation.

AK: Have you experienced any tensions between being a poet and being an activist? 

KK: I have never thought there should be a contradiction between the two. They are mutually reinforcing. My participation as an activist informs my sensibility as an artist and my imagination as an artist attempts to inform and shape the vision that moves me to activism.

AK: What have you learned about the relationship between writing, personal transformation, and social transformation? 

KK: I believe that in my development as an artist and a cadre in the struggle for a better world, through all its phases during my lifetime, I am both an imaginative explorer and a participant at the practical level….The lived experience influences and gives fire to my imagination. The texture of life informs and influences my handling of language as a literary artist. There is a dialectical relationship between the two that cannot be broken by any force on this planet. In other words, when what I write is political it is because I am unapologetically political; what I write defines who I am and that should say something about what choices I will make in life, what I will and what I will not do.

AK: Where do you see hope for the future of South Africa?

KK: I think that from this phase of struggle, we need to be able to do a critique that has the precision of a map and say this is where we are and concede that is not where we are struggling to get to and try to look at what blunders we have made, why, how and so on and identify without lying to ourselves where we want to go in spite of the whims of any other power on this planet and then identify the resources we have to get there. Resources are not limited to just material resources, but intellectual, emotional, all that. And also try to identify what the stumbling blocks might be or what forces might be hostile to what we are trying to do. And what we are going to do when that happens. I think until we do that with almost coldly scientific orientation, I don’t see how we’ll solve our national problems.

AK: What would freedom in South Africa look like?

KK: For me it would be when there is no exploitation of any one group of people by another. It would be when capitalism is a way of the past because I think it should be clear to us that unless we change the economic system, which determines social relations, we’ll always have problems. If we continue along a capitalist path, it means we are saying the majority of the people will remain exploited and how do we talk of freedom then? So for me, it would be without that kind of environment; we would have created a new one, in which case then we’d be able to laugh and celebrate life.