The poetic justice of Dennis Brutus

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca in its summer fundraiser today for as little as $1 per month!

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 Dec. 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 U.N. 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 co-founder, executive producer and host of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on more than 450 public broadcast stations in North America.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.