Sad news from South Africa | Dennis Brutus has passed
Dennis Vincent Brutus, 1924-2009
World-renowned political organizer and one of Africa’s most celebrated
poets, Dennis Brutus, died early on December 26 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 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
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 1977, 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, ninety of which
will be published posthumously next year by Worcester State University,
and he helped organize major African writers organizations 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 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.
Amongst numerous recent accolades were the US War Resisters League peace
award in September, two Doctor of Literature degrees conferred at Rhodes
and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in April – 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 labeled 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,
* 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,
* Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader, ed. Aisha Kareem and Lee
Sustar (Haymarket Books, Chicago and University of KwaZulu-Natal Press,
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.
(By Patrick Bond)
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
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.