Troubadour politics: How Dennis Brutus maintained ‘stubborn hope’

By Patrick Bond

I will be the world’s troubadour
if not my country’s
jousting up and down
with justice for my theme
weapons as I find them
and a world-wide scatter of foes

Being what I am
a compound of speech and thoughts and song
and girded by indignation
and accoutred with some undeniable scars
surely I may be
this cavalier?

-- Dennis Brutus, 1978  

January 1, 2010 -- World-renowned political organiser and one of Africa’s most celebrated poets, Dennis Vincent Brutus, died early on December 26 in Cape Town, in his sleep, aged 85. Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader is the title of the autobiographical sketches and verse published in 2006 by Haymarket Books of Chicago and the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. What links these aspects of your life, I once asked the itinerant Dennis Brutus, and he replied, “The role of the troubadour.”

Travelling from court to court during the Middle Ages, the troubadour was southern Europe’s sage, a wit whose satirical songs offered some of the most creative expressions of love for life and people.

Too often, though, Brutus’ poetry reflected such acute pain, suffering and above all anger at the court’s ruling elites – surgically delivered, at times breathtaking, at times didactic, at times counterposing society and nature with dramatic insight, capable of breaking free from accepted form - that his internal punning and literary references were typically lost on followers who were first and foremost political junkies (like myself).

Trying to keep up with the octogenarian after his 2005 move to Durban dazed even the most Brutus-addicted staff at the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society and Centre for Creative Arts, for which he served as a fixture at the Time of the Writer and Poetry Africa festivals.

At least one overarching impression sings out from the cacophony of warm memories: the Brutus philosophy that genuine liberation -- not the half measures won in 1994, when class apartheid replaced racial domination -- represents a war to be waged on many fronts because as one battle is won and many more usually lost, there are still others on the horizon that make an engaged life fulfilling, that keep the fires of social change desire burning long into the night.


No South African threw themselves more passionately into so many global and local battles. But from where did the indomitable energy emerge? In his youth, Brutus was radicalised in part by the denial of opportunities to play sports across Port Elizabeth’s neighbourhoods. He was restricted to competitions in the black townships, hence his first campaign was for athletic fairness. This was an entry point into revolutionary politics, initially with the Teachers’ League and then the Congress movement.

By 1968, Brutus had lobbied 60 Third World countries to boycott the Olympic Games if the white-only South African team participated, and thus defeated the notorious International Olympic Committee leader, Avery Brundage, a man who was pro-Berlin in the 1936 Nazi games, pro-Salisbury after Ian Smith took over Rhodesia in 1965, and very pro-Pretoria at the Mexico games.

In the process, Brutus received deep battlefield scars, suffering bannings (both personal in 1961 and affecting most of his poetry until 1994), a 1963 police kidnapping in Maputo followed by a near-fatal shooting outside Anglo American’s central Johannesburg headquarters during an escape attempt, imprisonment and torture at the Hillbrow Fort Prison and on Robben Island from 1963-66, and alienating times in exile from 1966-1991.

It was partly his infinite mischievousness that prevented exile from wearing Brutus down. Former Bureau of State Security agent Gordon Winter called him “one of the twenty most dangerous South African political figures overseas”.

He was extremely effective. At the 1971 Wimbledon tournament, Brutus disrupted a semi-final match played by Cliff Drysdale, winning acquittal for his deed from the British House of Lords. Other pranks with a bite included the weed killer he and local students poured onto the rugby pitch to spell out “Oxford Rejects Apartheid” just as a key match began, forcing cancellation, following a march of 18,000 Londoners against racist sport, which compelled the Springboks to cancel their 1970 tour.

Such fun never quite washed away the bitter taste of apartheid. The residue lingered long after, especially when Ali Bacher won membership in Naas Botha’s South African Sports Hall of Fame, because the cricket administrator “organised international rebel tours in the early 1980s”.

Brutus was on the verge of induction at the same December 2007 ceremony, but upon mounting the stage, he handed back the statue, announcing, “I cannot be party to an event where unapologetic racists are also honoured, or to join a Hall of Fame alongside those who flourished under racist sport. Their inclusion is a deception because of their unfair advantage, as so many talented black athletes were excluded from sport opportunities. Moreover, this Hall ignores the fact that some sportspersons and administrators defended, supported and legitimised apartheid.”

Such deep principles led Judge Irving Schwartz to declare, “There is no question that Professor Brutus has made himself hated by just about every [white] South African.” Schwartz rebuffed the Reagan Administration’s efforts to expel Brutus from the United States in 1983.

Those three decades in the US spent teaching at leading universities (Northwestern, Pittsburgh, Dartmouth, Swarthmore and others) gave Brutus opportunities for high-profile support to every doomed left-wing political struggle: ending the unfair incarceration of Philadelphia poet Mumia Abu Jamal, American Indian Movement leader Leonard Peltier and Guantanamo Bay prisoners, halting sweatshops, imposing boycotts, divestment and sanctions on Israel, building solidarity with people of Burma, opposing Washington’s militarism by following Thoreau’s lead and refusing to pay a portion of his taxes, and attempting to prosecute George Bush for war crimes.

Return to South Africa

Without much if anything to show for these efforts, what did Brutus do, then, upon returning to South Africa? In 1998, he and Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane inaugurated Jubilee South Africa to, first, demand rejection of inherited apartheid debt, which the African national Congress government’s Trevor Manuel’s finance ministry was dutifully repaying, and then launch a World Bank Bonds Boycott aimed at defunding the Washington nerve centre of free market ideology.

Brutus and Trevor Ngwane initiated the latter campaign at the April 2000 protests against a Bank and International Monetary Fund meeting. At the world’s largest private pension fund, TIAA-CREF, Brutus then persuaded trustees to divest World Bank investments, just as he had twenty years earlier during the anti-apartheid struggle.

War on “global apartheid” was now Brutus’ apparently Quixotic campaign. Yet exactly three months before the infamous Battle of Seattle at the World Trade Organization summit in November 1999, he addressed a major rally with a scarily accurate premonition: ”We are going to set in motion a movement and a demand and a protest around the world which is going to say no to the WTO and it is going to start right here in Seattle!”

The WTO never recovered, and as recently as April 2009, the IMF also looked down and out – losing major borrowers, operating in the red and retrenching a tenth of its economists – until Manuel spearheaded a US$750 billion bailout by the G20 group of large economies, infuriating Brutus.

Other South Africa-based campaigning included leading demonstrations against the World Conference Against Racism in 2001 and World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002, anti-privatisation, climate, apartheid reparations (which Pretoria finally has conceded make sense), a reversal of the current US travel ban on Adam Habib, fighting 2010 soccer World Cup forced removals, solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe and the Tamils, and in Durban support for Warwick Junction small traders facing eviction and a variety of other local eco-social justice struggles.


For this Brutus was labelled “ultra-left”, or as then President Thabo Mbeki aide Essop Pahad put it in a 2002 statement to The Sowetan, “Dennis the Menace!... We cannot not allow our modest achievements to be wrecked through anarchy. Opponents of democracy seek such destruction.”

Instead, Noam Chomsky recounted more accurately last week, Brutus was “a great artist and intrepid warrior in the unending struggle for justice and freedom. He will long be remembered with honor, respect, and affection, and his life will be a permanent model for others to try to follow, as best they can.”

Most followers will find his legacy of politico-literary contributions reason to adopt the title of another Brutus poetry collection: Stubborn Hope.

[Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society, and like thousands of students in the US during the 1980s, was politicised by Brutus.]