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Hamba kahle Comrade Dennis Brutus (1924-2009)


There will come a time
There will come a time we believe
When the shape of the planet
and the divisions of the land
Will be less important;
We will be caught in a glow of friendship
a red star of hope
will illuminate our lives
A star of hope
A star of joy
A star of freedom

-- Dennis Brutus, Caracas, October 18, 2008

By Patrick Bond

December 26, 2009 -- World-renowned political organiser and one of Africa’s most celebrated poets, Dennis Vincent Brutus, died early on December 26, 2009, in Cape Town, in his sleep, aged 85.

Even in his last days, Brutus was fully engaged, advocating social protest against those responsible for climate change, and promoting reparations to black South Africans from corporations that benefited from apartheid. He was a leading plaintiff in the Alien Tort Claims Act case against major firms that is now making progress in the US court system.

Brutus was born in Harare in 1924, but his South African parents soon moved to Port Elizabeth, where he attended Paterson and Schauderville high schools. He entered Fort Hare University on a full scholarship in 1940, graduating with a distinction in English and a second major in psychology. Further studies in law at the University of the Witwatersrand were cut short by imprisonment for anti-apartheid activism.

Brutus’ political activity initially included extensive journalistic reporting, organising with the Teachers’ League and the Congress movement, and leading the new South African Sports Association as an alternative to white sports bodies. After his banning in 1961 under the Suppression of Communism Act, he fled to Mozambique but was captured and deported to Johannesburg. There, in 1963, Brutus was shot in the back while attempting to escape police custody. Memorably, it was in front of Anglo American Corporation headquarters that he nearly died while awaiting an ambulance reserved for blacks.

While recovering, he was held in the Johannesburg Fort Prison cell which more than a half-century earlier housed Mahatma Gandhi. Brutus was transferred to Robben Island where he was jailed in the cell next to Nelson Mandela, and in 1964-65 wrote the collections Sirens Knuckles Boots and Letters to Martha, two of the richest poetic expressions of political incarceration.

Subsequently forced into exile, Brutus resumed simultaneous careers as a poet and anti-apartheid campaigner in London, and while working for the International Defense and Aid Fund, was instrumental in achieving the apartheid regime’s expulsion from the 1968 Mexican Olympics and then in 1970 from the Olympic movement.

Upon moving to the US in 1971, Brutus served as a professor of literature and African studies at Northwestern (Chicago) and Pittsburgh, and defeated high-profile efforts by the Reagan administration to deport him during the early 1980s. He wrote numerous poems, 90 of which will be published posthumously next year by Worcester State University, and he helped organise major African writers organisations with his colleagues Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.

Following the political transition in South Africa, Brutus resumed activities with grassroots social movements in his home country. In the late 1990s he also became a pivotal figure in the global justice movement and a featured speaker each year at the World Social Forum, as well as at protests against the World Trade Organisation, G8, Bretton Woods Institutions and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development.

Brutus continued to serve in the anti-racism, reparations and economic justice movements as a leading strategist until his death, calling in August 2009 for the "Seattling" of the recent Copenhagen summit because sufficient greenhouse gas emissions cuts and North-South "climate debt" payments were not on the agenda.

His final academic appointment was as Honorary Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society, and for that university’s press and Haymarket Press, he published the autobiographical Poetry and Protest in 2006.

Among numerous recent accolades were the US War Resisters League peace award in September 2009, two Doctor of Literature degrees conferred at Rhodes and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in April 2009 -- following six other honorary doctorates – and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the South African government Department of Arts and Culture in 2008.

Brutus was also awarded membership in the South African Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, but rejected it on grounds that the institution had not confronted the country’s racist history. He also won the Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes awards.

The memory of Dennis Brutus will remain everywhere there is struggle against injustice. Uniquely courageous, consistent and principled, Brutus bridged the global and local, politics and culture, class and race, the old and the young, the red and green. He was an emblem of solidarity with all those peoples oppressed and environments wrecked by the power of capital and state elites – hence some in the African National Congress government labelled him "ultraleft". But given his role as a world-class poet, Brutus showed that social justice advocates can have both bread and roses.

Brutus’s poetry collections are:

Sirens Knuckles and Boots (Mbari Productions, Ibaden, Nigeria and Northwestern University Press, Evanston Illinois, 1963).

Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison (Heinemann, Oxford, 1968).

Poems from Algiers (African and Afro-American Studies and Research Institute, Austin, Texas, 1970).

A Simple Lust (Heinemann, Oxford, 1973).

China Poems (African and Afro-American Studies and Research Centre, Austin, Texas, 1975).

Strains (Troubador Press, Del Valle, Texas).

Stubborn Hope (Three Continents Press, Washington, DC and Heinemann, Oxford, 1978).

Salutes and Censures (Fourth Dimension, Enugu, Nigeria, 1982).

Airs and Tributes (Whirlwind Press, Camden, New Jersey, 1989).

Still the Sirens (Pennywhistle Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1993).

Remembering Soweto, ed. Lamont B. Steptoe (Whirlwind Press, Camden, New Jersey, 2004). Leafdrift, ed. Lamont B. Steptoe (Whirlwind Press, Camden, New Jersey, 2005).

Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader, ed. Aisha Kareem and Lee Sustar (Haymarket Books, Chicago and University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 2006).

He is survived by his wife May, his sisters Helen and Dolly, eight children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren in Hong Kong, England, the USA and Cape Town.

[Patrick Bond directs the Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal:]


Statement from the Brutus Family on the passing of Professor Dennis Brutus

Professor Dennis Brutus died quietly in his sleep on the 26th December, earlier this morning. He is survived by his wife May, his sisters Helen and Dolly, eight children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren in Hong Kong, England, the USA and Cape Town.

Dennis lived his life as so many would wish to, in service to the causes of justice, peace, freedom and the protection of the planet. He remained positive about the future, believing that popular movements will achieve their aims.

Dennis’ poetry, particularly of his prison experiences on Robben Island, has been taught in schools around the world. He was modest about his work, always trying to improve on his drafts.

His creativity crossed into other areas of his life, he used poetry to mobilize, to inspire others to action, also to bring joy.

We wish to thank all the doctors, nurses and staff who provided excellent care for Dennis in his final months, and to also thank St Luke’s Hospice for their assistance.

There will be a private cremation within a few days and arrangements for a thanks giving service will be made known in early January.


Anti-Privatisation Forum: We mourn the passing of Dennis Brutus and celebrate his incredible life

December 26, 2009 -- The Anti-Privatisation Forum and all of its 30+ community affiliates are saddened by the passing away of Comrade Dennis Vincent Brutus earlier today in Cape Town. Comrade Dennis passed away in his sleep, aged 85. At the same time, we celebrate his incredible life of literary, intellectual and activist principle and commitment to justice and equality for all.

Many other activists and movements here in South Africa and across the globe will no doubt provide ample affirmation of comrade Dennis’ amazing life journey and activism. His personal sacrifices, achievements and involvement in a wide range of social and political struggles over the better part of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st are legendary. Comrade Dennis was always on the side of the oppressed and remained true to his principles in fighting for an anti-capitalist South Africa and world. His pen and his voice were always a thorn in the side of the rich and powerful, whether here or abroad and were constant reclaimers of our collective consciences and humanity.

In the ten years since the formation of the APF, comrade Dennis was a regular source of solidarity, encouragement and lively debate. He never shirked from joining the fight against narrow nationalism, ethnic chauvinism and gender oppression and always had a word of encouragement and affirmation for his fellow comrades.

While we will miss him greatly, we celebrate his life along with all his family, friends and fellow activists.

Hamba Kahle comrade Dennis!


Two poems by Dennis Brutus in Caracas

Below are two poems presented by veteran anti-apartheid and global social justice activist Dennis Brutus, in Venezuela for the eighth meeting of the Network of Intellectuals and Artists in Defence of Humanity and the World Forum for Alternatives, October 18, 2008.

Dennis Brutus

Poem immediately following the conference, in the Hotel Alba overlooking Caracas mountains, 5:50am on October 18, 2008.


Saffron dawn glimmers
beyond the mountain's blue bulk
my shoulder's reflection infringes
on the window's dim report
So let some impact from you my words echo resonance
lend impulse to the bright looming dawn


* * *

Poem delivered at the closing session.

There will come a time
There will come a time we believe
When the shape of the planet
and the divisions of the land
Will be less important;
We will be caught in a glow of friendship
a red star of hope
will illuminate our lives
A star of hope
A star of joy
A star of freedom


In thanks to President Hugo Chavez and the people of Venezuela,
Dennis Brutus
October 18, 2008, Caracas.

[Read more by and about Dennis Brutus from the archives of Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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