South Africa’s Dennis Brutus : A Poet for Human Rights

Dennis Brutus. Photos by Victor Dlamini / Flickr.

He will be remembered for his art and for his life:

Liberation poet Dennis Brutus (1924-2009)

By Mariann G. Wizard / The Rag Blog / January 2, 2010

See ‘The Poetic Justice of Dennis Brutus,’ by Amy Goodman, Below.

South African liberation poet Dennis Brutus passed away during the recent holidays. Of several online obituaries and tributes, the following, from Amy Goodman, best illustrates Brutus’ importance to poets and human rights activists worldwide.

At the Rag Blog, some felt a special kinship with the deceased through his connection with our sister, imprisoned anti-imperialist activist and poet Marilyn Buck. Marilyn’s CD, Wild Poppies (2004, Freedom Archives), was recorded while she was — as she still is — in a federal prison in California. She recorded some of her work for the CD, over the telephone — recording equipment is not allowed in prison visiting rooms — with the chaos and pain around her adding their ragged, random accompaniment.

Many other poets (myself included) contributed to Wild Poppies by reading Buck’s poems for her; Dennis Brutus was by far the best-known. (Kwame Ture, the former Stokely Carmichael, voices a tribute to Buck on the CD.)

Some poets who participated read their own poems, touching on themes that pervade Marilyn’s work, or poems Marilyn has translated from Spanish, but the South African Poet Laureate read one of her poems (“One-Hour Yard Poem”) — a very fine compliment from this man who was himself a prisoner of conscience and of apartheid, alongside Nelson Mandela. He also read one of his own (“Letter #18”). (Listen to Dennis Brutus reading these two poems, below.)

Like the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Brutus will be remembered for his life and times as well as his lines, a poet lucky enough to witness extraordinary events, using his gift to open not only prison doors, but the doors of perception.

From Marilyn Buck’s Wild Poppies:

Dennis Brutus reads Marilyn Buck’s ‘One Hour Yard Poem’:


Dennis Brutus reads his ‘Letter #18’:

Photo by Victor Dlamini / Flickr.

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

The poetic justice of Dennis Brutus

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… — Dennis Brutus

By Amy Goodman / December 29, 2010

Dennis Brutus broke rocks next to Nelson Mandela when they were imprisoned together on notorious Robben Island. His crime, like Mandela’s, was fighting the injustice of racism, challenging South Africa’s apartheid regime. Brutus’ weapons were his words: soaring, searing, poetic. He was banned, he was censored, he was shot. But this poet’s commitment and activism, his advocacy on behalf of the poor, never flagged.

Brutus died in his sleep early on December 26 in Cape Town, at the age of 85, but he lived with his eyes wide open. His life encapsulated the 20th century, and even up until his final days, he inspired, guided and rallied people toward the fight for justice in the 21st century.

Oddly, for this elfin poet and intellectual, it was rugby that early on nagged him about the racial injustice of his homeland. Brutus recalled being sarcastically referred to by a white man as a “future Springbok.”

The Springboks were the national rugby team, and Brutus knew that nonwhites could never be on the team. “It stuck with me, until years later, when I began to challenge the whole barrier — questioning why blacks can’t be on the team.” This issue is depicted in Clint Eastwood’s new feature film, Invictus. President Mandela, played by Morgan Freeman, embraces the Springboks during the 1995 World Cup, admitting that until then blacks always knew whom to root for: any team playing against the Springboks.

In the late 1950s, Brutus was penning a sports column under the pseudonym “A. de Bruin” — meaning “A brown” in Afrikaans. Brutus wrote, “The column… was ostensibly about sports results, but also about the politics of race and sports.” He was banned, an apartheid practice that imposed restrictions on movement, meeting, publishing, and more. In 1963, while attempting to flee police custody, he was shot. He almost died on a Johannesburg street while waiting for an ambulance restricted to blacks.

Brutus spent 18 months in prison, in the same section of Robben Island as Nelson Mandela, where he wrote his first collection of poems, Sirens, Knuckles, Boots. His poem “Sharpeville” described the March 21, 1960, massacre in which South African police opened fire, killing 69 civilians, an event which radicalized him:

Remember Sharpeville
bullet-in-the-back day
Because it epitomized oppression
and the nature of society
more clearly than anything else;
it was the classic event

After prison, Brutus began life as a political refugee. He formed the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee to leverage sports into a high-profile, global anti-apartheid campaign. He succeeded in getting South Africa banned from the Olympic Games in 1970. Brutus moved to the United States, where he remained as a university professor and anti-apartheid leader, despite efforts by the Reagan administration to deny him continued status as a political refugee and deport him.

After the fall of apartheid and ascension to power of the African National Congress, Brutus remained true to his calling. He told me,

As water is privatized, as electricity is privatized, as people are evicted even from their shacks because they can’t afford to pay the rent of the shacks, the situation becomes worse… The South African government, under the ANC… has chosen to adopt a corporate solution.

He went on:

We come out of apartheid into global apartheid. We’re in a world now where, in fact, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few; the mass of the people are still poor… a society which is geared to protect the rich and the corporations and actually is hammering the poor, increasing their burden, this is the reverse of what we thought was going to happen under the ANC government.

Many young activists know Dennis Brutus not for his anti-apartheid work but as a campaigner for global justice, ever present at mass mobilizations against the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — and, most recently, although not present, giving inspiration to the protesters at the UN climate summit in Copenhagen.

He said, on his 85th birthday, days before the climate talks were to commence: “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.”

[Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 800 stations in North America. She is the author of Breaking the Sound Barrier, recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller. Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.]

© 2009 Amy Goodman

Distributed by King Features Syndicate

Source / truthdig

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4 Responses to South Africa’s Dennis Brutus : A Poet for Human Rights

  1. Victor says:

    I had the privilege to sit down with Brutus in the warmth of the coastal city, Durban and over an hour or so he shared with me his love for poetry. But it soon became clear to me that for Brutus humanity was not divisible, and this explains the depth of his anguish at what he deplored as ‘global apartheid’; the suffering of poor people as a result of the crass profit move that was championed by so many who ignored the devastating effect it had on the poor. The night before our interview I had met Brutus for the first time at the house of a mutual friend, and in the course of that meeting and the next few days, I photographed Brutus and captured his powerful voice on tape. I have been lucky enoug to interview many literary figures, but my interview with Brutus was easily one of the most important. Victor Dlamini

  2. the suffering of poor people as a result of the crass profit move that was championed by so many who ignored the devastating effect it had on the poor. Victor implies that in places where there is no profit motive, there are no poor. I cant think of any established society where that is true. Perhaps Victor can illuminate here.

    Here are 9 ways that profits help poor people:
    Employment, Education, Healthcare, Taxes, Philanthropy, Innovation, Economic Opportunity, Legal Systems and Protections, Freedom

  3. Steve Russell says:

    Hmm. We seem to have forgotten my interview with Dennis published in The Rag, along with a number of his poems, as well as a conspiracy hatched by a number of people but brought to fruition by an organization fronted by myself, Sage White, and Richard Moore, wherein we rented a post office box in Del Valle for a business called “Troubadour Press” and mailed all the major bookstores in South Africa a “catalog” containing some of the most outrageous African LIt in-jokes you ever heard and one real book: Thoughts Abroad by John Bruin.

    Mr. Bruin was, of course, Dennis, whose work was banned in South Africa.

    I remember the conversation with FBI agent who informed me that renting the post office box under a fake name was a federal crime…but they would blow it off if we would cease and desist.

    After the conspiracy was busted, I thought nothing more of it until I wanted to travel to South Africa in the late 80s with Mike Tigar’s project to train black civil right lawyers…only to find that I could not get a visa, as I was persona non grata.

    Being persona non grata in apartheid South Africa is quite an honor….

  4. Michelle says:

    Hi, just saw your article on Dennis Brutus and thought you might be interested in a new documentary, Fair Play, which tells the story of the anti-apartheid movement sports boycotts he played such a key role in. Here’s a trailer: http://activevoice.net/haveyouheard_fairplay.html.

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