Protest, prison, humour and hope were recurring themes that emerged during a high tea event hosted by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Development and Alumni Department (DAD) in honour of the life and work of UCT alumnus and anti-apartheid poet Keith Gottschalk.
Guests and graduates congregated around bedecked tables for the gathering, which was held at the Baxter Theatre and saw prominent struggle icons such as former Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs in attendance. The event, titled “Fear and Defiance: UCT in the 1960s”, was part of the department’s Distinguished Alumni Speaker Series, an initiative that spotlights the calibre of UCT’s graduates while engaging alumni audiences on various societal issues.
Gottschalk – who studied politics at UCT, where he also began his academic career as a lecturer – opened the event by reciting poems from his published collections Emergency Poems (1992) and Cosmonauts Do it in Heaven (2022), putting the humour and irony that are features of his work and his personality on full display, and eliciting applause, laughter and thoughtful silences from the audience.
“I had a duty to oppose the injustice of the time.”
“You mention the name Keith Gottschalk, and people smile with warmth and pleasure,” said Sachs during the question-and-answer session that followed a panel discussion. “Somehow you have managed to make quirkiness into weapons for good. You have an alive mind, a good heart, and a brotherly and sisterly personality.”
Gottschalk donned the silver Order of Ikhamanga medal, which was awarded to him by President Cyril Ramaphosa in April this year. The honour is conferred by the Presidency to South African citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism or sport. The Office of the President recognised the poet “for using creativity to draw critical attention to oppressive and unjust laws through performative political poetry. The work provided strength and motivated many people to fight for liberation”.
An activist at heart
For the panel discussion, Gottschalk was in conversation with Dianna Yach, a member of the UCT Council and Chair of the Mauerberger Foundation Fund, and award-winning poet and novelist Associate Professor Ken Barris of the Faculty of Engineering at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
Reflecting on his student days at UCT in the 1960s, Gottschalk told Yach: “It was like an island of relative liberal tolerance compared to the repression outside. We held protests outside Jameson Hall; I’d write articles on the background of the pass laws for Varsity newspaper … It was all very different to the world beyond campus.”
During her opening remarks, the deputy director of DAD, Libo Msengana-Bam, referred to Gottschalk as a “rebel”, citing his involvement as a member of the Hands Off District Six alliance, the United Democratic Front and the African National Congress, among others. His activism against social and political injustice began at UCT, where he worked as a student reporter for Varsity newspaper, and continued into the 1980s, when he performed several of his poems at political rallies and concerts against detention. In 1984 Gottschalk joined the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape, and later headed the department. He is a Fulbright scholar who has been lauded for his many scholarly publications.
Gottschalk also served on the executive board of the Congress of South African Writers, an organisation that seeks to redress the imbalances of apartheid education and give voice to previously unpublished authors, and sits on the board of long-standing literary journal New Contrast.
Protest poetry as a historical source
During the panel discussion, Professor Barris acknowledged Gottschalk as “the least derivative poet” he’d ever come across – mainly because of his diverse interests, which include African culture, politics, history and space travel, all of which are marks of his poetry. In referencing the exhaustive footnotes that provided context for many of the verses in Emergency Poems, Barris revealed how Gottschalk’s work serves as a valuable source of apartheid and protest history, the finer details of which are often hard to come by.
“Emergency Poems has ‘feetnotes’, not footnotes,” Gottschalk quipped. “I made the right decision, because in 2023, almost nobody mentions the acronyms of the organisations all over the Cape Flats that I refer to. Those were pre-internet days, and you can’t find many of these references on Google.”
While there was all-round admiration from his peers in the room, it was heartening to see that Gottschalk’s poetry has reached a younger generation.
“Literature helps me to know more about myself,” said young poet Aluta-Continua Mtsi, a Grade 11 learner who was at the event. “I wanted to say thank you, Mr Keith, for being really inspiring.”
In response to a question posed by Yach as to whether he would have done anything differently, Gottschalk said: “My life would have been a lot easier if I hadn’t done anything. But I had a duty to oppose the injustice of the time.”
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Please view the republishing articles page for more information.