Minister Mashatile pays tribute to the late Amiri Baraka

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16 Jan 2014

The arts fraternity in South Africa received with shock and sadness the news of the passing of legendary poet, playwright, novelist, essayist and activist, Amiri Baraka, last Thursday.

Born Leroy (which he later changed to LeRoi) Jones in 1934, Amiri Baraka came of age in the midst of historical moments dominated by the Chinese Revolution as well as the Cuban Revolution. He was subsequently invited by President Fidel Castro to a Writers’ Conference in Cuba where he interacted with some of the greatest literary minds of the time. What he was exposed to in Cuba impressed and radicalised him.

This was also a period of political turmoil in South Africa, with the apartheid regime brutalising political activists and imposing some of the most vicious laws against the indigenous peoples of this country. Many of our political activists, including writers, musicians and other artists, streamed out of the country and some settled in the United States of America. It was during this period that artists like Keorapetse Kgositsile, the current National Poet Laureate of South Africa, interacted with the proponents of the Black Arts Movement like Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Larry Neal and Hoyt Fuller, to name but a few.
Our histories of struggle and fervent desire for freedom and progress drew parallels between the black community in America and the exiled South Africans living in the US.

Baraka was one of the leading African American activists who took a deliberate stance to reclaim their African heritage and pledge solidarity with the continent in the early sixties. He reportedly had an all-night meeting with Malcolm X discussing international strategy for black liberation in January 1965. The struggles of the oppressed peoples of Africa became their struggles. After the murder of the Premier of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, in 1961, Baraka played a pivotal role in a protest march to the United Nations where he was arrested.

Baraka had a special affinity to South Africa as the country that endured some of the harshest oppressive systems unleashed by one race against another in their land of birth. It was against this backdrop that with the onset of the democratic order in South Africa, Baraka was one of the very first artists that were invited to our shores. He came to this country with his wife, Amina, prominent artist and activist in her own right, in 1995 and engaged with the South African arts community.

A legend in his lifetime, Baraka was an exceptionally gifted artist. His seminal works such as “Dutchman”, “The Dead Lecturer” and “Blues People: Negro Music in White America” remain very influential texts across the world, and especially on the African continent. It is inspiring to note that he continued writing and performing poetry until his hospitalization last year. His body of work influenced a plethora of different generations of thinkers in different parts of the world.

Although we were aware that Baraka was ill and had been hospitalised at the Beth Israel Medical Centre since December 2013, we were devastated to hear the news of his passing. We still cannot imagine the world without him. We find solace in the realisation that great minds will never be forgotten. His piercing voice will continue to resound and serve as a constant reminder of our collective obligation to make the world a better place.

We convey our heartfelt condolences to the Baraka family, the arts community in the US and all those who were inspired by his works worldwide.