The Interview: Keorapetse Kgositsile, The burden of the poet laureate
In Paris, Charl Blignaut asked Keorapetse Kgositsile about the state of the nation, the role of the artist in the ANC and about his son, a troubled hip-hop star.
Keorapetse Kgositsile sits on a red velvet couch in the corner of a waiting room off a lavish reception hall in the Hôtel de Ville.
Lavish is an understatement.
The city hall of Paris is ridiculous. Stairways open into columned, mirrored halls, which open into gilded chambers where chandeliers drip from frescoes.
By contrast, I imagine, the visiting African poet should seem out of place, overwhelmed by his surroundings.
But in fact Kgositsile looks perfectly at home, naughty even . . . a trickster on his couch, eyes glinting.
South Africa’s poet laureate is a small man with a lush, greying beard and a broad smile.
He is on fine form, despite having just emerged from the cabin of an all-night flight from Joburg.
He is here to read poems for the South African Season in France. He is also here because he is an adviser to South Africa’s arts minister.
I wonder about these two hats.
The ceremony we have just witnessed – the handing over of the keys of the city to Nelson Mandela – has left me disoriented.
The embracing of South Africa in Paris and the celebration of our culture, the air-kissy unity, the champagne already starting to flow next door . . .
It’s only a few days later that I will read the introduction to Kgositsile’s poem No Serenity Here, with its bruised, defiant words: “An omelette cannot be unscrambled.
Not even the one prepared in the crucible of 19th century sordid European design . . . When Europe cut up this continent into little pockets of its imperialist want and greed it was not for aesthetic reasons, nor was it in the service of any African interest, intent, or purpose.”
Taking a seat on the antique red velvet couch, I blurt out my thoughts.
Paris seems to me archaic, irrelevant and beautiful. I keep getting the feeling countries like France urgently need new ideas from Asia and Africa to invigorate themselves . . . Er, how do you feel about that statement?
I would actually agree with that. But I think it’s no big secret, given its history with South Africa . . . I think, in the present situation, that France continues to need and want what it needed and wanted before, but now with different players.
Yet here we are, in France, being toasted . . .
I think this is part of the contradiction that we find ourselves in, in the global community today.
Because also, I would say, in the spirit of Mandela, we are not moved by wanting to destroy those who worked with our enemies before, but moved by the hope that they will follow the lead of the people.
Because the French people, a significant portion of them, even when their government flirted with the apartheid regime, supported us.
What are your feelings on Mandela being trotted out like this across Paris? Do you not sometimes feel cynical?
Well, one cannot help but to feel that, although that too is old.
When a people or a nation is in crisis, they need a figure, a face, someone who exists at an almost mythical or metaphorical level.
We built Mandela into that.
A lot of what we carried, for instance, for decades in exile, as part of our conscience, was the idea of Mandela that we had built into our sensibilities.
But unfortunately after 1994 I think we pushed him up to a pedestal so high that we almost deified him and, like most gods, made him almost irrelevant.
You think we’re a nation in crisis?
I think so. I think if we denied that, it would possibly be at our own peril.
The thing to be able to say is: “This is where we are on the historical map. This is not where we started off going to.”
But as long as we think nothing is wrong, I don’t think we can correct it.
Do you believe corruption is the root of our crisis?
I think corruption is more of a symptom of a more hideous social disease that we haven’t yet diagnosed.
Do you think we will fight our way out of it or are we already immune?
I think we will, for the simple reason that, now, many people are talking. Many people are restless.
Many people want us to rediscover the path we were on. It will not happen by chance . . .
What is your role as a poet? Surely it’s also one that needs to slap people around the head a little bit?
I think we do a bit of that . . . it might not be enough.
Actually, yesterday I was talking with a colleague, and saying: “You know, unless sooner, rather than later, we start talking very directly, history will judge us very harshly.”
From the arts and culture aspect, I’m also witness to a lot that is not happening that could be happening.
If I am not influential enough to see that it happens, then I would be irresponsible.
Do artists have a political duty?
They generally need to, for the fact that they have freedom of expression.
They should develop a sense of social responsibility and should realise the solution will have to come from all of us.
Do you think we’ve lost the role of the intellectual within the ANC?
I do not think so, because some voices are still as sharp as they used to be.
I’m thinking, offhand, for instance, of people like Pallo Jordan.
He hasn’t stopped being articulate.
We need thinkers to keep people on their toes, in case they get too relaxed and forget that they need to be answerable.
Many of the speeches this week place emphasis on South Africa being such a unique nation. But the rest of the world has the same issues. Do you think part of our problem is thinking we’re so different to the rest of the world?
I would agree with that. But I would also say perhaps that is trying to rationalise why we are not doing what we know we should be doing.
I think, for instance, reconciliation should impose a sense of social responsibility on everybody.
I’m afraid to say, for the most part, the beneficiaries of reconciliation continue to be those who were the beneficiaries of oppression and exploitation.
Many young people are angry about this history.
Yes, but also you find a lot of young people who are not even interested in knowing where we have come from, where we have intended to be . . . that their disgruntlement is not collective . . . that if they individually made it materially, they wouldn’t complain, they would be part of the problem.
What have you learnt from watching your son’s trajectory inside pop culture? He became famous as Earl Sweatshirt, a self-mutilating and very rude teen rapper in America.
I was with him less than a month ago, and he’s gone solo.
Today he is somewhat negative towards those who follow him because of what he was doing before.
I think it was an unguided expression of juvenile pain.
He says when he was in rehab they assigned him to work with abused young women, and, in the process, he was shocked to realise how words can be totally detached from reality at the human level.
Do you think his poems are a continuation of your poems?
I don’t dismiss hip-hop – let’s say the form. But the content, a lot of it is garbage.
But I think the roots of hip-hop are consciously trying to recapture an old African tradition, the oral poem.
And in your own writing, what is your process nowadays, your rhythm?
I don’t write as regularly, if that’s what you mean, as I used to.
But I’m not complaining about that because I think the situation now calls for doing a whole lot of other things.
As long as I don’t stop writing, because that’s part of who I am.
I think I still write much about the things I used to write about.
I respond to people dehumanising others, to oppression . . . I respond to love . .