We are going to miss Bra Willie – his laugh so big and so communicative, and always so as not to embarrass the world with the sadness of his eyes. He lived as if he was a reed for the tunes and the rhythms and the winds of his time, and in that he was the reed of our turbulent passage on earth, perhaps transmitting a very ancient song to us. Few people are ever to this extent the disinterested instrument and embodiment of a life of struggle and of beauty. There was always something very comforting and profound in his presence – but also quizzical in a gentle way. His very being was shaped not by bitterness, or even by easy accusations, and not by grandiose generalities either, but by the reminder of his full and shared and compassionate humanness that so self-evidently took dignity and even purpose for granted. Were his dreams of liberation, of living up to the promises that his generation posited, that poets and other gentle composers of our fate represented … betrayed? Of course. Did it surprise him? Was he ever fooled by “liberation” and “brotherhood”? No, I don't think so. Because he knew both the self-surpassing and the anonymous good and the real engagement we humans are capable of – as, too, the baseness and the grandstanding and the braying and the killing and the predatory greed of the male animal. Did it make a cynic out of him? No. A fanatic? No. Did he think he could influence or change the behaviour of those in power? No. Did he run away? No. Did he wallow in the narcissism of victimhood? No. Did he consider himself a casualty of a cruel history? No. Did he – even by implication – condemn those, including erstwhile comrades and sisters-in-arms and his own exile companions for taking the low road to the shallows and the mud and the prancing of power? No. But they knew. And he'd laugh, sometimes behind his hand, not at them or us, and not really with them either, but perhaps to dissimulate the immense pain of the human condition since all times. As if he were saying to us without having to say so: "Ja, boet – ek weet, en jy weet dat ek weet, en ek weet jy weet, maar dis ook orraait so." He knew. He knew his Neruda and his Seegers and his Fanon and his Césaire and his Bessie Head and his Lorca and his Mayakovsky … He and Ko Un didn't have to look at each other to recognise each other. Like them – all of them and so many more (whose breath he carried with him) – he was of the tribe of the wise, the “little people”, the shamans, the holy drinkers, the tricksters, those who'd refuse to kill just because they could now do so.
En nou is hulle byna almal weg. We do not have the means or the dimension or the depth to honour him and those he knew – Zeke Mphahlele, Bloke Modisane, Lewis Nkosi, Marius Schoon, Mazisi Kunene … And the faceless ones. Because Willie, just by being, would not let us forget and ignore history – the faceless death. Our fate too. Even the fat torturers and blackmailers and scroungers and purveyors of fake news and those who would steal the very spoon they use to sup with the devil, and even his fellow-musicians of the soul … we will all lose our faces in time. We will all of us be members of the eternity dancers in that house of words. But perhaps we get there along different paths of our own choosing. Let us not forget the texture of our differences. The drunkenness of Willie was never the vulgar drunkenness of those who will now slobber and wail their snot over the corpse. Will he be intimidated or even irritated by the instrumentalisation? Maybe, maybe not. He knows he never carried the moon in his knapsack to give himself shine. So what?
He will be at the crossroads somewhere. He will take off his cap (that he wore mostly to hide his baldness) to honour his mother. And the wind. And the memory. And laugh together with his old friend James Matthews, and with Dennis Brutus, and with Miriam Makeba … And if we really want to know he will tell us about the painters of Africa, of people like Mlangatana. He may mutely point us in the direction in which we do not want to look – to the slave markets, to the migrant traps, to the wall jumpers and the tunnel diggers, to the down-and-outs rotting on our streets of mad consumerism and glitz as we search for “likes” on our monkey mirrors. No use asking him the way, the secret to his equanimity. He may answer that there can be no answer – if there is a way it will be in us, he might add – and that his breath is of the wind. Or maybe he'll show us the direction to a good shebeen. And maybe he'll laugh when we mistake the moon in his bag for some cheese. Or a CD. Why explain?
Hamba kahle, mfowethu. Gee hulle hel daar bo of daar onder. Jy mag maar. Jy het dit verdien. You are beyond time and outside/inside our words now. Ons gaan jou mis, my broer.
A selection of photos: Spier Poetry Festival 2016
Photographer: Retha Ferguson
Published with the permission of Mari Stiemie