Dennis Brutus was a regular interviewee on Democracy Now! Watch at http://www.democracynow.org/tags/dennis_brutus
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).
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: http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs.]
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.
Poem immediately following the conference, in the Hotel Alba overlooking Caracas mountains, 5:50am on October 18, 2008.
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 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,
October 18, 2008, Caracas.
Sport mourns two men who fought for their beliefs until the end
Tuesday 29 December 2009
by Jon Gemmell
Cricket comment: Celebrating the lives of anti-apartheid campaigner
Dennis Brutus and Daily Worker sports editor Lester Rodney
Those who enjoy their sports alongside their politics are mourning the
loss of two huge figures over Christmas. As sports editor of The Daily
Worker in the United States, Lester Rodney was an early campaigner for
the integration of baseball.
The US Communist died aged 98 on December 20. His life is celebrated in
an article written for the Morning Star on March 26 2008.
Rodney lived 13 years longer than the South African anti-apartheid
activist Dennis Brutus, who died in his sleep at home in Cape Town on
Brutus was born in Harare, but moved to South Africa as a boy. Early
political activity included journalism, organising with the Teachers'
League and Congress Movement and leading the South African Sports
Association as an alternative to white sports bodies.
South Africa's first official policy on sports was forced on the regime
by a number of developments which indicated a growing unease with racism.
In 1956, the International Table Tennis Federation withdrew recognition
of the white South African body and acknowledged its black counterpart,
while FIFA became embroiled in the country's football structure.
A number of black organisations, including the South African Cricket
Board of Control, pressed for international recognition.
The government reacted with an official sports policy that decreed that
whites and blacks should organise their sports separately and prohibited
mixed sport. In addition, no mixed teams could represent the country
abroad and international sides competing in South Africa would have to
The official sports policy afforded the government the right to
determine not only which teams could play South Africa but also the
racial composition of these sides. The government even laid down which
sporting bodies should be affiliated to international associations.
The opposition targeted international sides and succeeded in getting
both Brazil and the West Indies to cancel visits to South Africa.
They then targeted the Olympics demanding either non-racialism in South
African sport or, failing that, the expulsion of South Africa from the
Olympics and international sport.
The Suppression of Communism Act made Brutus a criminal in 1961. He fled
to Mozambique but was captured and deported to Johannesburg. There, in
1963, he was shot in the back while attempting to escape police custody
and forced to wait for an ambulance that would accept blacks.
Sentenced to 18 months, Brutus spent time on Robben Island in the cell
next to Nelson Mandela. He was also banned from teaching, writing and
publishing in South Africa and eventually settled in the US as a
political refugee. From there, he continued his campaign against racist
However, the white international sporting community showed little
interest in South Africa's racial policies. When Brutus wrote to members
of the Olympic movement in 1963 asking them to join the struggle against
racist sport, New Zealand's IOC member Arthur Porritt dismissed him as a
MCC secretary Billy Griffith took the line that South Africa was too
important to be left out of world cricket and that anyway there was no
colour bar in the constitution of their (white-only) cricket board.
Much was made of "traditional links" and "essential communications."
Following the election of Sir Cyril Hawker as president of the MCC in
1970 Brutus asked whether his position as chairman of Standard Bank had
anything to do with these links and communications.
Such exposure led administrator Wilfred Wooler to inform Brutus that "we
have no sympathy with your cause in any shape or form and regard you as
an utter nuisance."
Despite the obstinacy of certain establishment figureheads, Brutus
proved instrumental in the apartheid regime's expulsion from the 1968
Mexican Olympics and then in 1970 from the Olympic movement. Gradually
South Africa became excluded from most sports.
For his efforts, Brutus was nominated alongside Ali Bacher for induction
in the South African Sport Hall of Fame in 2007.
His reaction to this nomination highlights his proud heritage of
political struggle. He used the showpiece event to reject the nomination
on the grounds that he couldn't "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."
"Moreover," Brutus argued, "this hall ignores the fact that some
sportspersons and administrators defended, supported and legitimised
Brutus maintained his fight for social justice into his last years. He
remained committed to reparations for black South Africans from
corporations that benefited from apartheid. He also advocated social
protest against those responsible for climate change.
In an open letter about the recent Copenhagen climate change conference
he warned against "brokering a deal that allows the corporations and the
oil giants to continue to abuse the earth."
His family said Brutus lived his life in the service of justice, peace,
freedom and protecting the planet. "He remained positive about the
future, believing that popular movements will achieve their aims."
It is with this sense of optimism that he will be best remembered.
Steve Bloom on December 28, 2009
On December 26, Dennis Brutus, world-renowned South African poet and anti-Apartheid fighter, who spent time in Robben Island prison with Nelson Mandela, died at the age of 85.
Early in this decade, when he was a professor in the Black Studies Department at the University of Pittsburgh, Dennis Brutus and I were attending the same political conference in that city. We had never met. I approached him, somewhat hesitantly, to share a poem I had written referencing the struggle in South Africa. He read it immediately, and eagerly. Then, to my surprise, he began a conversation as if we were long-time comrades and collaborators.
That, in my experience, was Dennis Brutus summed up: a man who had achieved greatness by any ordinary standard. But the esteem in which he was held by others seemed unimportant to him. He felt, and acted, like an ordinary human being simply doing what needs to be done. He treated others, even strangers, as if that were true as well.
Over the next few years, every time our paths crossed—mostly on his frequent visits to New York City—Dennis would ask me what poetry event was being organized that he might participate in. It was, in part, as a result of his urging that I organized the very first “Activist Poets’ Roundtable” at the US Social Forum in Atlanta in 2007. He also helped launch the Roundtable in New York City in March 2008, after the annual “Left Forum” where Dennis appeared on several panels.
It was at this time that I really got to know him well. He had injured his foot, somehow, on the eve of the Left Forum and was having difficulty walking. I spent that weekend driving him back and forth between his hotel and the conference site, also making sure he had the help he needed getting around at the conference itself (and in his hotel). Then, when his foot did not improve, he accepted an offer of a place to stay for a few days in Brooklyn, where he wouldn’t have to manage on his own.
He and I spent a lot of time together during those few days, in particular waiting for medical attention at the Kings County Hospital emergency room. And he told me stories about his life in the struggle against Apartheid. I will never forget the chuckle in his voice as he talked about the time he was shot in the back while attempting to escape from the police. He could laugh, too, about the absurdity of breaking rocks at Robben Island prison, the lengths to which the Apartheid regime had gone to suppress dissent. And yet it was all for naught (the source, I assume, of his mirth). The regime could not survive, no matter what brutal measures it resorted to. The people of South Africa were too strong.
During this entire time, as his foot at first got worse then gradually began to feel better, the biggest concern he expressed to me was that he shouldn’t become too much of a burden.
In that same month we drove together to Washington, DC, for the first “Split This Rock” poetry festival. Dennis found it impossible to attend such an event without making it an opportunity for a little political organizing. He decided, on the way down, that we should use the festival as the occasion for a declaration of poets calling for peace and social justice in the world. And so an “Appeal to Poets, Writers, and All Creative Artists” from the festival, for actions in March 2009 which would “Speak Art to Power,” was born. In the end it was signed by a majority of those in attendance at the festival.
The overwhelming majority of young activists in the struggle for a better world believe that they are committed for life. Very few, however, actually fulfill this promise which they make to themselves. How many who were Dennis Brutus’s comrades in the anti-Apartheid struggle, for example, ended up compromising their commitment to human liberation once the overthrow of Apartheid was achieved and power transferred into their hands? Dennis, however, remained committed to the poor and oppressed of South Africa and of the world until his final days. He was constitutionally incapable of doing otherwise.
It has always struck me as one of the sad ironies of our existence that we can never, truly, count anyone in the ranks of the very special few who fulfill their youthful pledge—to themselves and to their own humanity—until they are no longer with us. Dennis fulfilled his pledge. He is no longer with us. The world will miss him.
I will miss him, too.
December 30, 200
Dennis Brutus, 1924-2009: The Man Who Would Reclaim Sports
It was 1976, and the Summer Olympics in Montreal had improbably become ground zero in the struggle against apartheid. Several dozen African nations threatened to boycott if the International Olympic Committee dared allow South Africa to be a part of the games. Montreal's athletic jamboree was in jeopardy and the cause of all the tumult, according to Sports Illustrated, was a diminutive South African poet the magazine called "the Dark Genius of Dissent." His name was Dennis Brutus. Brutus organized entire blocks of the world around a simple question: how can the Olympics say they stand for "brotherhood" and fair play if apartheid nations could join the festivities? It worked. The "Dark Genius" shamed the shameless and changed international sports forever. Over the course of decades, as a dissident, refugee, and political prisoner, Brutus advanced this simple athletic argument. The organizations he founded, the South African Sports Association (SASA) in 1958 and its successor, the South African Nonracial Olympic Committee, (SANROC) used it to hammer critical nails in apartheid's coffin.
For Brutus, this work in the sports world was merely an extension of a lifetime organizing for racial and economic justice. His death on December 26th after a long bout with cancer has created an incalculable void. Not merely because he was beloved as the "singing voice of the South African Liberation Movement"; not merely because Brutus held a reservoir of political lessons; but because he remained a tireless agitator for justice. Days before the recent international climate talks in Copenhagen, the ailing Brutus called the proceedings a sham, saying, "We are in serious difficulty all over the planet. We are going to say to the world: There's too much of profit, too much of greed, too much of suffering by the poor. ... The people of the planet must be in action."
He also never stopped holding up the dreamy ideals of sport against reality's harsh light. Up until the final days of his life, while the leaders of South Africa celebrated the coming arrival of the 2010 World Cup, Brutus was in the streets, protesting the demolition of low income housing to make way for soccer's international party. In December 2007, he publicly rejected induction in the South African Sports Hall of Fame, saying to 1,000 onlookers,
Being inducted to a sports hall of fame is an honor under most circumstances. In my case the honor is for helping rid South African sport of racism, making it open to all. So I cannot be party to an event where unapologetic racists are also honored, 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 legitimized apartheid. There are indeed some famous South Africans who still belong in a sports hall of infamy. They still think they are sports heroes, without understanding and making amends for the context in which they became so heroic, namely a crime against humanity. So, case closed. It is incompatible to have those who championed racist sport alongside its genuine victims. It's time-indeed long past time-for sports truth, apologies and reconciliation.
I had the privilege to interview Brutus extensively three years ago about why he came to see sports as an arena to fight for justice. His answer was, I have come to learn, typical Dennis Brutus: refusing to be anything less than blunt and provocative. I asked him whether he agreed with me that sports could still be a lever to change the world. Instead of cheerleading the notion, he said to me,
"My own sense is that sports has less capacity now to change society then it had before. For instance, the degree that sports has become commercialized. The degree that your loyalty is no longer to a club like it used to be because guys are bought and sold like so many slaves....The other thing that really scares me is the way that sport is used to divert people's attention. Critical political issues in their own lives. Their living conditions. The Romans used to say this is the way to run an empire. Give them bread give them circuses. Now they don't even give you bread and the circuses are lousy..."
But amidst his critiques, Brutus was never a pessimist, only a "critical optimist." How else to explain that in his next breath, he also said to me,
"We must however realize that the power and reach of sports is undeniable...It's kind of a megaphone. People will hear [political athletes] because their voices are amplified. Not always in a very informed way. Of course when there are exceptions, it can produce magic: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for instance or Muhammad Ali. So it does help and they do have that megaphone: but all-important is content. All-important is politics. That is decisive."
There are ways to honor Dennis Brutus and his memory. Read aloud
his poetry at the first opportunity. Keep his words alive to "produce
magic" for a new generation. Keep fighting for a global justice. And
keep fighting to reclaim sports. As people are criminalized in
Vancouver to make way for the 2010 Olympics, as the poor are
dispossessed in the name of the 2010 World Cup, we should proudly claim
Dennis's well-worn place at the march, never allowing those in power
the comfort of indifference. As Dennis said to me when I asked him how
he could stay so active into his 80s, "This is no time for laurels.
This is no time for rest."
[To purchase Dennis's brilliant collection, Poetry and Protest, go to the below link.