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Dennis  Brutus

Personal Details
Organization: Past Honorary Professor
E-mail Address:

Job Description
Past Honorary Professor

Other information

World-renowned political organizer and one of Africa’s most celebrated
poets, Dennis Brutus, died early on 26 December 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 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

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,
    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).

  • 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,
    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.
    (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 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.

    One of the first South African poets to be widely read in Europe and the U.S., Dennis Brutus' work found early critical acclaim. His first book, Sirens, Knuckles, Boots, was published while he was imprisoned for defying a 'banning' order by the apartheid government following his campaign to desegregate the South African Olympic team. His best-known book, Letters to Martha (Heinemann, Oxford and London), deals with his prison experiences.

    After being shot in the back by Johannesburg police during an escape attempt and breaking rocks for 18 months at the notorious Robben Island prison alongside Nelson Mandela, Brutus was exiled in 1966, and in London resumed simultaneous careers as a poet and anti-apartheid campaigner. He was instrumental in achieving the apartheid regime's expulsion from the Olympics, won numerous awards for poetry, and helped organize key African writers' organizations with his colleagues Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. Upon moving to the U.S., Brutus served in several academic positions, including at Northwestern University and the
    University of Pittsburgh, defeating efforts by the Reagan Administration to deport him.

    Following the transition to democracy in South Africa, Brutus remained active with grassroots social movements in his home country and internationally. In the late 1990s he became a pivotal figure in the global justice movement and a featured speaker each year at the World Social Forum. In the anti-racism, reparations and economic justice movements, he continues to serve as a leading strategist, working closely with international networks such as the Jubilee anti-debt movement. In South Africa, he has been a key figure in the Social Movements Indaba. In Southern Africa, he has traveled widely and has numerous contacts within the region's social justice movements.

    Online archives

    Archival Collection Name: Dennis Brutus (1924- ) Papers
    Location of activities: United States
    Time Period of Collection: 1960 - 1984
    Description: Papers of Dennis Brutus, poet, South African expatriate,
    and English Professor at Northwestern from 1971 to 1985. The Dennis
    Brutus Papers comprise correspondence, papers associated with specific
    organizations and events, and numerous drafts of poems, both handwritten
    and typed. The bulk of Brutus's correspondence falls within the period
    1960-1973, and consists of family and other personal correspondence,
    correspondence related to teaching positions, and individual folders for
    correspondence with key persons. The Papers also contain much
    sports-related material, including but not confined to the International
    Committee Against Racism In Sport (ICARIS) and the South African
    Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC). Brutus's work with the
    International Defense and Aid Fund and other anti-racial groups is
    documented as well. There are also a number of notebooks and daybooks
    with poetry and journal entries from the 1960s. A large portion of the
    Papers consists of manuscript drafts and typescripts of Brutus's poetry,
    including a small number of complete manuscripts of published poetry
    works. (Source: collection finding aid.)

    Archive Of: South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee
    Medium: 38 boxes
    Catalog Info: Opens PDF file
    Catalog/Finding Aid: Repository: Northwestern University Library, University Archives
    Deering Library, Room 110, 1970 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60208-2300

    Archival Collection Name: Dennis Brutus (Schomburg collection)
    Location of activities: United States
    Time Period of Collection: 1970 - 1990
    Description: Papers of Dennis Brutus, a South African-born poet and
    human rights and anti-apartheid activist. He founded the South African
    Sports Association in 1961 and the South African Non-Racial Olympic
    Committee (SAN-ROC) in 1963, and was subsequently arrested and jailed,
    placed under house arrest, and banned from all literary, academic and
    political activities. He went into exile in 1966 and has lived in the
    United States since 1970, emerging over the years as a prominent
    lecturer and author, a professor of African literature and a major
    spokesperson in the international movement to end apartheid in South
    Africa. In exile Brutus and SAN-ROC spearheaded a successful campaign to
    ban apartheid South Africa from international sport competitions.
    Brutus, based in the United States, was President of SAN-ROC and Sam
    Ramsamy, based in London, as Chairman. The collection consists of
    personal and professional papers, correspondence, writings, files of
    SAN-ROC and the Dennis Brutus Defence Committee, anti-apartheid posters,
    photographs, recordings, and subject files on Nelson Mandela, human
    rights, South African politics, divestment, apartheid and sports,
    African literature, and the struggle against apartheid in general.
    Photographs, anti-apartheid posters and audio-visual recordings
    transferred respectively to the Photographs and Prints, the Art and
    Artifacts and the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Divisions.

    Archive Of: South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee
    Medium: 19.5 linear feet
    Catalog/Finding Aid:
    Repository: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
    The New York Public Library, 515 Malcolm X Boulevard, New York, NY
    (212) 491-2200

    Archival Collection Name: Dennis Brutus (Worcester State College collection)
    Location of activities: United States
    Time Period of Collection: Mostly 1970s - 1990s
    Description: The collection consists of a range of primary documents
    donated by Dr. Dennis Brutus, a well known poet, anti-apartheid activist
    and human rights defender. He grew up in South Africa and founded the
    South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC) in 1963. His
    anti-apartheid activities led to a sentence of 18 months on Robben
    Island. In 1966 he went into exile and SAN-ROC established itself in
    London. In 1970 Brutus moved to the United States and established a
    stateside SAN-ROC, as well. The archive includes manuscripts,
    correspondence, texts of speeches, travel documentation, publications of
    anti-apartheid organizations and photographs. One box includes material
    on Apartheid and sports, the sports boycott and the Olympics including
    material related to SAN-ROC, the American Coordinating Committee for
    Equality in Sport and Society (ACCESS) and South African Council of
    Sport (SACOS), and also HART in New Zealand and CARE in Australia. There
    are, as well, materials Brutus's involvement with the divestment
    movement in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition, the Dennis Brutus
    Collection houses an extensive amount of material related to the Dennis
    Brutus Defense Committee's dealings with the attempt by the U.S.
    government to deport him and the successful campaign to block the
    deportation. The archive includes material Amnesty International and the
    campaign against the death penalty; Brutus served on the board of
    Amnesty International USA. The archive contains numerous interviews with
    Brutus in print, audio and video. Most of the archive is housed at the
    Worcester State College Library but some material is at the Center for
    the Study of Human Rights. See Dennis Brutus at Worcester State College
    (Source: Wayne Kamin, archivist, and Aldo Guevera, Human Rights Center
    coordinator at Worcester State College)
    Includes Materials Of: South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee
    Medium: 5,000+ documents, audio, video, photographs
    Catalog/Finding Aid:
    Restrictions: These materials are now available for access by scholars,
    students, and independent researchers from outside Worcester State. For
    permission to examine the collection, please contact Dr. Guevera at the
    Center for the Study of Human Rights (508) 9... or Dr. Donald
    Hochstetler, Director, Learning Resources Center.
    Repository: Worcester State College Library
    486 Chandler Street, Worcester, MA 01602-2597

    Dennis Brutus Online Photo Archive

    Other online material about Dennis Brutus

    Dennis Brutus Events

    Dennis Brutus tribute, with SMI & Durban community groups 23 January 2010

    Dennis Brutus honored by War Resisters League, 18 September 2009

    Dennis Brutus: Reconciliation and the Work of Memory in Post-apartheid South Africa, 3 April 2009

    Dennis Brutus celebrations, honorary doctorates, 16- 18 April 2009

    Dennis Brutus at Jubilee SA 10-year anniversary celebration, Johannesburg, 29-30 November 2008

    CCS celebrates Dennis Brutus's 84 birthday 28 November 2008

    Dennis Brutus at Boston 'Encuentro5', 23 November 2008

    Dennis Brutus at Worcester State College 17 -20 November 2008

    Dennis Brutus on Apartheid Reparations 26 September 2008

    Dennis Brutus plays Marx in Soweto at Brecht Forum 23 September 2008

    Dennis Brutus at the Jubilee South Africa National Conference 21-24 August 2009

    Dennis Brutus poetry at Annual Diakonia Lecture 14 August 2008

    DENNIS BRUTUS, on Steal This Radio, 15 July 2008

    Dennis Brutus at TIAA-CREF shareholder meeting, Denver, 15 July 2008

    Dennis Brutus poetry in Philadelphia, 11 July 2008

    Dennis Brutus and Patrick Bond at the CT Book Fair 17 June 2008

    Dennis Brutus at Split the Rock poetry festival, 22 March 2008

    Dennis Brutus Dennis Brutus says 'No thanks' to SA Sports Hall of Fame, 5 December

    Dennis Brutus is Marx in Nairobi, 25 November 2007

    Dennis Brutus at the Ken Saro-Wiwa celebration in CT, 22-23 November 2007

    Dennis Brutus at the Ilrig conference on the G20, 15 November 2007

    Dennis Brutus Marx in Swaziland, 4 November 2007

    Dennis Brutus & Patrick Bond at Friends of the Earth international conference in Swaziland, 4 November 2007

    Marx @ KwaSuka - Dennis Brutus plays Karl Marx, 26 & 28 October 2007

    Dennis Brutus: 'Karl Marx @ UKZN', 25 October 2007

    Dennis Brutus at Christopher Okigbo celebration in Boston, 20 September 2007

    Dennis Brutus at Fort Hare, 29 August 2007

    Online Publications
    Brutus, Dennis and Cashdan, Ben (2001) World Conference Against Racism: South Africa Between a Rock and a Hard Place. Z-Mag July 11: -.

    Brutus, Dennis (2006) Dennis Brutus on the crisis in Darfur: “You shouldn’t send in killers to stop the killing” . Centre for Civil Society : -.

    Brutus Dennis (2009) Poetry Collection.  : 1-49.

    Brutus, Dennis & Bond, Patrick  () Trevor's toy telephone can't ring Wall Street or Washington. The Mercury : -.

    Brutus, Dennis Translation by ka-Manzi, Faith
     (2008) Umarx ethekwini. Centre for Civil Society : -.

    Goodman Amy & Brutus Dennis  (2008) Interview with Dennis Brutus. Democracy Now : -.

    Brutus Dennis & Bond, Patrick (2008) UKZN may snuff out its left brain : What's next for Durban's best-known institute of social and environmental justice?. Eye on Civil Society Column (The Mercury)  : -.

    Brutus, Dennis  (2009) Poems for the Crises and the Commons conference. Crises and the Commons conference : -.

    Brutus, Dennis (2009) Poem by Dennis.  : -.

    Brutus Dennis (2006) Poetry & Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader. Haymarket Books : 1-416.

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