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 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,
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 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
There will be a private cremation within a few days and arrangements for a
thanks giving service will be made known in early January.
Dennis Vincent Brutus, 1924-2009
Democracy Now on Dennis Brutus
Renowned South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus died in his sleep on December 26th in Cape Town. He was 85 years old.
Brutus was a leading opponent of the apartheid state. He helped secure South Africa’s suspension from the Olympics, eventually forcing the country to be expelled from the Games in 1970. Arrested in 1963, he was sentenced to eighteen months of hard labor on Robben Island, off Cape Town, with Nelson Mandela.
“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,” writes Patrick Bond. “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…Given his role as a world-class poet, Brutus showed that social justice advocates can have both bread and roses.”
Dennis Brutus was a frequent guest on Democracy Now! over the years. A collection of his appearances is listed below.
Poet, anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus dies
South African poet and former political prisoner Dennis Brutus has died. He was 85.
Brutus' publisher, Chicago-based Haymarket Books, says the writer died in his sleep at his home in Cape Town on Saturday.
Brutus was an anti-apartheid activist who was jailed at Robben Island with Nelson Mandela in the mid-1960s. His activism led Olympic officials to ban South Africa from competition from 1964 until apartheid ended nearly 30 years later.
Exiled from South Africa in 1966, Brutus later moved to the United States and taught literature and African studies at Northwestern University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Over the years, he wrote more than a dozen collections of poetry, including two while imprisoned. He is survived by a wife, eight children and many other relatives.
©2009 The Associated Press
Sport struggle hero dies
Proffessor Dennis Brutus, one of South Africa’s most influential activists against the apartheid government, has died at the age of 85.
Brutus worked to get South Africa suspended from international sport participation, which eventually lead to South Africa’s expulsion from the Olympic Games in 1970.
Brutus spent 18 months on Robben Island after he was arrested in 1963 for his stance against apartheid.
President of the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee Gideon Sam said Brutus was a stalwart in liberating South African sport from the grips of apartheid.
“He’s been a stalwart of spot in this country and abroad, making sure South Africa was isolated until we had proper freedom.”
(Edited by Danya Philander)
Dennis Brutus, poet and activist, dies at 85
Vivian Nereim, Pittsburgh Post-GazetteSaturday 26 December 2009
Dennis Brutus, the prolific poet and impassioned activist who was imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela in South Africa, died at his home in Cape Town this morning after battling prostate cancer. He was 85.
Dr. Brutus was exiled from his native South Africa for more than 20 years, and he successfully lobbied to ban the apartheid regime's all-white Olympic teams from the games.
During his exile, he traveled around the world, spending many years in Pittsburgh. At the University of Pittsburgh, where he was a professor, he directed the Black Studies department, now the Africana Studies department. He was beloved by many local writers and activists, who today recalled his gentle nature and devotion to human rights, whether in words or action.
Patrick Bond, director of the Center for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, where Dr. Brutus was an honorary professor in his last years, said Dr. Brutus was sharp and engaged through his final days of life.
Despite his illness, he was still sending letters to newspaper editors this month about the international climate conference in Copenhagen. He was particularly passionate about environmental issues recently, said Mr. Bond, and he fervently wished he could be in Copenhagen himself.
Pitt Department of History Chair Marcus Rediker, who knew Dr. Brutus well, said he was awed by Dr. Brutus's tirelessness.
I called him a world-wide mover and shaker, he said. You could never be sure at any given moment which continent Dennis was on, what particular cause of justice he was taking up.
Arrangements for services remain unclear today.
Sokari Ekine Terrible news has just reached my ears: the lion has died. The lion sleeps tonight. Professor Brutus fought the apartheid regime and helped bring down some of its structures, almost single handedly.
He was a poet whose poems he wrote while in prison on Robben island are mainly why this blog exists, and why I write poetry. Letters to Martha, the book is called. He was my hero.
What do you begin to say when the pillar falls? Do you cry for the empty future (Brutus’s “the weight of the approaching days”) or celebrate his life? Dilemma. I have celebrated his life on this blog and privately in the rooms of my heart. I choose to mourn, now. So, what are we gonna do?
Who’s gonna step into his shoes? What will them think, now that he is dead? That we’re weaker? That they’re stronger? We must mourn no matter what. He will live through his action and through his words, none of which spoke louder than the other.
Let us mourn, then, this man who has done so much for you and for me, and so little for himself. Let us mourn because orphans mourn, and let us hope that because of this departure, we will soon move from mourning to morning.
is not so very different from ours:
—who has not joyed in the arbitrary exercise of
or grasped for himself what might have been
and who has not used superior force in the
moment when he could,
(and who of us has not been tempted to these
so, in their guilt,
the bare ferocity of teeth,
chest-thumping challenge and defiance,
the deafening clamor of their prayers
to a deity made in the image of their prejudice
which drowns the voice of conscience,
is mirrored our predicament
but on a social, massive, organized scale
which magnifies enormously
as the private dehabille of love
becomes obscene in orgies.
Split This Rock on Dennis Brutus, 1924-2009
26 December 2009
Split This Rock mourns the passing and celebrates the life of Dennis Brutus, who shared his prophetic vision with us as a featured poet at Split This Rock's inaugural festival in March 2008. Our thoughts are with his family and with the broader human family Dennis cared about so much. We are all lucky to have been graced with his fierce, uncompromising love.
Dan MoshenburgFor many, young, old and anywhere in between, Dennis has been a presence, a gentle and insistent education into the beauty of the persistent struggle for social justice and into the need to remember that social justice emanates from and builds on love, laughter, beauty, understanding, sharing, humanity.
Dennis first came to the attention of many with his collection Letters to Martha & other Poems from a South African Prison. Here’s one of those poems, “Letter 18”, dated 20 December 1965. Hamba kahle dear greatly daring poet hamba kahle sala kahle.
I remember rising one night
through an impulse of loneliness
to try and find the stars.
And through the haze
the battens of fluorescents made
I saw pinpricks of white
I thought were stars.
I thrust my arm through the bars
and easing the switch in the corridor
plunged my cell in darkness
I scampered to the window
and saw the splashes of light
where the stars flowered.
But through my delight
thudded the anxious boots
and a warning barked
from the machine gun post
on the catwalk.
And it is the brusque inquiry
that I remember of that night
rather than the stars.
20 December 1965
The Poet signs a higher note
My condolences on the passing of the great comrade who so inspired us with his pen and commitment.
Gillian Hart My deepest condolences on Dennis's passing. One of the people for whom Dennis was very important is Alfred Duma, who was with him on Robben Island. Baba Duma often speaks of Dennis very fondly, remembering in particular how Dennis was very important in enabling illiterate people like himself to learn to read on the Island. At the end of 1998, a year in which both my parents died, I recall sitting in Mr Duma's house in Ezakheni township outside Ladysmith, and was gripped by a spasm of grief. Baba Duma took me by the hand, and explained that in the Zulu tradition one grieves when a young person dies - but when an old person who has lived a good, full life passes on, then one celebrates. Dennis gave so much to the world, and there is so much in his life to celebrate.
Michael Yates I knew Dennis Brutus when he was at the University of Pittsburgh. A very fine, courageous, and gentle man. A friend of mine invited him to a class she was teaching at a prison in Pittsburgh. You have to go through a metal detector to get inside. Dennis had to go through about five times, each time removing some object he had forgotten about. I am sure the guards were irritated, but what could they do? If you knew Dennis and his manner, I am sure you can appreciate the humor and irony in the situation. Needless to say, he was a big hit with the men in the class.
Dennis Brutus had that rare quality of making you feel important in what you were doing even as he was humble about his own profound contributions to the struggle for human liberation.
Muna Lakhani I am sorry to announce that a giant amongst us has passed on... Dennis Brutus departed this planet about 2 hours ago..... all who know him, will miss his integrity, clarity of thought and infinite wisdom.... those who do not, will feel the void he has left behind... hamba kahle...
Khadija Sharife all my favorites poems and poets have his voice - he would read for me my favorites, even when he was really tired...
Tony Brutus: (speech at Dennis' CT memorial today)
How do you do? Aangenaame kennis, my naam is Dennis. A phrase with a
ring to it, and a sense to it—
Dennis was ready to meet the world, polite, respectful and clear minded.
In the living room of our Shell Street home in Port Elizabeth, he would
greet neighbours and fellows from near and far. And in fact, the names
of Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, MN Pather, Lutchie Lutchman, Luthuli,
were household names for me growing up. An engaging man.
According to his sisters, Dennis was an extrovert and very early on, it
is clear, he was a man with a mission, ready to take on the world.
The measure of the man can be found in the treasure of rich ideas,
lyrical poetry and breadth of achievement over many walks of life. He
took pleasure of mooching down to the Port Elizabeth docks to greet and
befriend foreign sailors arriving from far and stranded without a
knowledge of the town – and he was rewarded with a unique and broad
collection of jazz records and wonderful East German cameras. He could
tell you a story about that.
An aside – when I was turning twelve or thirteen, Dennis decided it was
time for us to have a father and son discussion on the hormonal changes
I would be going through. He said I suppose you will start to find girls
more exciting and you will want to know how it happens when you want to
be physical with each other. Just ask me anything. The trouble was that
we were sitting on a Red London Bus in Finchley in rush hour and
everyone was turning to stare at me. He might as well have started to
read a poem out loud, and of course I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t with
him. When you’re around Londoners, you feel this pressure to fit in and
conform with them.
The legacy of a legend is the inspiration he provided. People from many
different walks of life encountered him when they were searching for
focus and purpose – Dennis was a intellectual guide, a pilot light
assisting other souls with unfailing insight. Arthur Nortje, Vaughn
Fayle, Charles Abrahams are among immensely talented young people who
have with his nudging, achieved magnificent accomplishments.
The power of his story telling and his prophetic vision surrounds us at
the turn of the year: this year’s big event – a Fifa football spectacle
the likes of which the continent has never seen – the story Dennis tells
has this twist: will the trick of the trickle down effect wash away or
divided history? Or will it be a washout of elite corporate entertaining
leaving the local people complaining about empty promises, empty
stadiums, stars in the eyes and nothing in their pockets: we’ll see just
now if Dennis gut feeling was unfailing.
Leaving home going out to the world he said to his Mum: “ they won’t
like what I’m going to do…nevertheless I have to do what is right” He
could have meant his family, he certainly meant his compatriots.
By example that soul force will defeat police cordons: pen in hand,
clear of his conviction, he use his charm and courtesy, and ability to
spin a story as a formidable weapon.
Anyone of my brothers or sisters can tell you, that at St Patrick’s
Catholic Church in Sydenam there were only white alter boy. Dennis
changed that. Usually on the way there on a Sunday, we walked through a
park where the slides and swings had the all too familiar “For whites
only sign”. Go ahead and play on them, he used to say. And when people
or the park attendants approached us to object – he calmly, without
anger, stood up to them and defied them. It wasn’t fun, and the lesson
Dennis had for us was that you can make change: fly as straight as an
arrow to your goal.
There is too much of an attitude of “what can I get? Rather than how can
I serve?” these days. Back in Port Elizabeth at the time Americans were
in the awakenings and uprisings of the Civil Rights movement, a letter
would arrive in the post from Robert Kennedy, at the time Attorney
General or some such, replying to a persistent and principled enquiry
And that links to now, look at what we have now – you should know our
Minister of Justice Mr. Jeff Radebe has, on behalf of the South African
government shifted their position to support the case for reparations –
and the case is moving forward, with Dennis as a litigant: way ahead of
everyone, but he told, no intention of personal gain.
About unanswered questions. In the last World Cup final, what did the
player who incited Zinadine Zidane actually say? And all sorts of
possibilities have been suggested. What could I say to sum up the
meaning of my father, what would he actually say to advise me? And it is
this, don’t fear to tell the truth about me. Lies are chains. I have
looked for and stood for the truth.
And this location, this slave lodge will have heard the shouts and
shrieks of pain, the whip the lash and sjambok were used around this
place and these spaces. People crowded and sick and dying for lack of
dignity, the right to decency. We are the descendents of slaves, though
I haven’t exactly traced the precise roots. Our ancestors rebelled, and
Dennis would recall the uprisings that took place around the Cape
against injustice and oppression, as they take place everywhere around
Dennis and the written word. Letters of protest to the governing elites,
that plainly and simply demanded that people act according to their
words and their constitutions. Brief updates of news or filtered, coded
messages slipped under doors in prison cells on Robben Island where
Dennis mooched along with a mop, washing the floors. Open letters to the
editors of newspapers. Petitions to the courts: a rare and remarkable
intelligence and gift of reading and writing to back up the singular
purpose he had chosen: to live with integrity and to defy injustice and
Dennis and meetings, an early memory of a rally – the names Chief Albert
Luthuli, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki were always in the air; and the
funerals of struggle activists: meetings and funerals were much the same
We were not very much in touch with each other in recent years, but then
that changed and it is a credit that Dennis could put aside the
differences between us and say that he would spend some months with us
as his candle started to flicker. Eighty five years is a decent span.
Hamba Kahle Dennis!
Beverly Bell: Small Tribute to the Giant Dennis Brutus
Dennis… How does one pay tribute to Dennis Brutus? The man was sui
generis. Capturing him even partially would take a short book or a very
long poem. I hope someone attempts the feat, both because Dennis
deserves it and because it will help spread the power of his life, work,
And spread Dennis’ life, work, and words must continue to do, for in
them lie the essentials of a more just, humane, equitable, and
environmentally sustainable world.
The Dalai Lama is reported to have said, “Let your life be your
message.” Dennis’ was. This is true in the humility and beauty with
which he carried himself, the kindness with which he treated others, the
strength of his convictions, the energy with which he worked for those
convictions, and the wisdom and clarity of his words.
I met Dennis when he was fighting for political asylum from the
Apartheid regime in the early 80’s. Our collaboration began when he sat
on the board of the Washington Office on Haiti where I served on the
staff. Never mind that he could never attend the meetings due to his
back‑breaking schedule; he always took the time to send beautiful notes
of inspiration for the Haitian liberation struggle, written in his
remarkable free‑hand calligraphy. How we treasured those notes! He later
sat on the board of the Center for Economic Justice that I ran, and this
time he showed up for most of the meetings. Though reaching the remote
city of Albuquerque required many hours of travel, and though he often
had meetings or presentations in other countries on the front and back
ends, and though his participation was often for no more than a day,
still he came… for Dennis was faithful to whatever he committed to. The
same was true of the World Bank Boycott, of which we were two
coordinators: Dennis appeared for most any workshop, presentation, or
meeting we asked of him, raising high the flag with all his strength and
He didn’t just show up in body, of course. He came with his most
pressing passions and most politically urgent campaigns. He lobbied all
to involve ourselves, to turn out, to unite our voice and strength, to
do more than we were doing. The man was tireless and fearless, and
gently urged us to be, too. I recall running a workshop on strategies to
fight the World Bank in a church in Washington during a week of
protests. Making a cameo appearance, Dennis asked for the floor and
proceeded to make a long appeal for everyone to join him at another
gathering on another topic, many months out, in another country. As he
went on about whatever the topic of that gathering was, a young woman
hissed at me that the speaker was off‑message and that I should cut him
off. I tried to be polite while denying her request, but what I really
wanted to say to her was, “Do you have any idea who is speaking? You
should just feel honored. Just listen very carefully to what he has to say.”
The schedule he kept was remarkable for anyone of any age or state of
health. But I never heard him complain or make excuses. Dennis’ entire
history was a testament to the idea that you do what needs to be done,
you rise to the occasion. So on he plugged when he had surpassed 80,
when his health had diminished, when his itinerary exhausted him, when
his memory flagged. I ran into him at the World Social Forum in Mumbai
in one of his final years when he was clearly weary of body and mind.
After sharing a hug, he said, “I must go now because I have a meeting. I
can’t remember with whom, or where it is, but I know I have one.” And
off he went through the throngs, tenacity and a fierce commitment to
obligation trumping all personal challenges.
When we were lucky, Dennis had the time and inclination for a story. No
matter how grand or quotidian the narrative, it was marked by his
beautiful verbiage, exquisite oration, enlivened eyes, and ‑if a good
story‑ delight, or ‑if one of injustice‑ calm. My favorite stories were
of his and his comrades’ fierce fights against Apartheid. So much
courage and creativity they bespoke. He found humor in unexpected
places, and always understated the suffering. There was the tale of
attempting to flee the guards as he was being transported from one
prison to another, jumping out of the police car at a red light and
setting off in a dash. “That was when I learned what a
through‑and‑through wound was,” he said of the bullet which pierced his
chest and went out his back. He told of lying on the ground bleeding to
death, “in the shadow of the Anglo American Corporation, appropriately
enough,” waiting for the ambulance. When a whites‑only ambulance arrived
by mistake, he had to lie bleeding for another long while during which a
second ambulance – this one for so‑called coloreds ‑ journeyed from the
hospital. He told of his comrades’ breaking into the hospital to free
him after the shooting, as he barely survived on life support, and of
his stealthily writing on his hand, “Abort mission,” – knowing that he
would die in the process. He told of being under house arrest with
guards parked in front of his home around the clock, while he climbed
out the side window to attend political meetings.
During one of his narrations in my living room, I noticed that the
self‑deprecating chortle that usually punctuated his stories had
vanished. Dennis was softly crying. A tear ran down his nose and hung at
the tip, where it remained throughout the rest of his tale of horror and
brutality. Like Dennis’ life, the sadness or frustration it revealed did
nothing to stop or quiet the truth‑telling in which he was engaged.
It was easier to get a poem from him, whether he read it during a public
presentation or shared it in a quiet moment. Whenever he had a new book,
he carried copies around and freely gave them out, after adding a warm
inscription in that lovely penmanship. Dennis was perhaps most full in
his poems, merging the personal and the political, never denying the
existence of tyranny but always bringing to it his breath of hope that
the world can be different – if we organize to make it so.
It is perhaps easiest to remember Dennis the fighter, but I was always
equally impressed with Dennis the human being. No matter how ugly the
political fight, Dennis’ anger remained streamlined on the wrongful
systems and policies, not wasted on the individuals behind them. I do
not mean to imply that he was ever soft or compromising. But he kept his
eyes on the prize – the principles at play ‑ and in so doing, brought us
one step closer to the world we seek.
The same was true with his approach to the movement. When comrades and
allies around him made errors, his response always shone like a beacon
above the oft‑divisive internal politics. He seemed to know better than
most that we are all limited and imperfect, and that the benefit of the
doubt or the possibility of change is a grace we need for humanity to
continue to evolve. Or perhaps it was simpler: perhaps he knew that he
was no one’s judge. Or maybe he just knew that the world was harsh
enough already, as he expressed in his poem “Somehow We Survive”:
All our land is scarred with terror
rendered unlovely and unlovable
sundered are we and all our passionate surrender
Dennis wrote his own simple obituary in 2009 as he discussed the
Sharpeville massacre. “I was committed to the struggle and I would if
necessary die in the cause of liberation: ‘Freedom or death.’ It was a
very simple resolve.” He did indeed die in the cause of liberation –
though fortunately not a violent or premature death. Every single thing
that Dennis did was in the cause of liberation.
I would say I will miss Dennis, but he's not going anywhere: he is in
all of us who care profoundly for humanity and justice.
‑ Beverly Bell, Other Worlds, New Orleans, January 4, 2010
Dear Friends of the Literary Network, my family and those who cared for
The year ended on a sad note with the passing of our dear, beloved,
greatly respected Dennis Brutus.
I thnk that the greatest accolade I can pay him is to say that he was a
human being who used his incredible intellect for the greater good of
all humanity. And he paid the price for that lonely path. In some senses
of the term he was a martyr but he never carried himself with a sense of
victimhood or martyrdom. He consciously immolated his life in order to
help liberate the world from tyranny, racism and oppression. God was
good to allow him to be on Earth.
He was a sentient human being of impeccable integrity and incredible
nobility. He was at home with the 'simplest' among us but he could cross
swords, most deftly, with the most assinine among the arrogant academics
and the many mean spirited ogres who dwell among us. His manner, the way
in which he carried himself, reminded me of aristocracy ‑ without the
arrogance which usually accompanies that state of being. He was as
naturally noble and charming as breathing is for the rest of us. His
charm and soft manner of expression was always at odds with the way the
Apartheid media had reported about him with great ire ‑ the way they
reported about his activities which he conducted on behalf of us all.
It goes without saying that he was not for sale. If you were his comrade
you counted yourself truly blessed. If he took your assistance, then you
counted yourself fortunate, because he never asked for it. He was the
essence of good manners.
Cast in the role of the thorn child, it was inevitable that he would
have to oppose the gangsterism of fascism.
His resistance to tyranny was never done with the uncouth, wild
aggression of the immature. His was a resistance that was always
conducted with a Gandhian dignity and with a great deal of respect.
Those who he resisted must have gone away feeling, somewhere within
themselves, a great deal of shame.
In his everyday conversation Dennis was about subtlety ‑ never for him
the rudeness and tactlessness of direct confrontation. When he
criticised individuals it was always done with careful consideration for
the other. Poetry is about many things including emotion; yet, somehow,
Dennis always seemed to be in control of his emotions.
Yes, we celebrate his life now, now that he is taken from us. But many
of us celebrated Dennis Brutus while he was still alive. That memory
will stay with us for ever. He allowed his light to illuminate our
lives. Most of the people on this List learned a great deal from dear
Dennis. We are deeply grateful, Dennis.
While I was fortunate enough to associate with Dennis, he hardly ever
spoke about the many organisations he worked with or the many very great
human beings who respected him so much. He was the very personification
In a sense the depth of his humanity is reflected in the quality of his
great comrades, Claudia Martinezmullen and Professor Patrick Bond who
were the greatest friends any person could ever hope to have.
Dennis Brutus is immortal. He represents the best that is in Homo Sapiens.
Trevor Ngwane: The soldier did all that he had to do and more, may he
rest in peace.
Ronnie Kasrils: He fought fiercely for freedom, equality and justice,
and apart from many admirable qualities was one of this country's
outstanding. He lived a life of fulfillment and will be remembered for
his sterling qualities and the courageous role he played to set our
Hopewell Gumbo: I met you in the last days. Your frail voice, from the
wheel chair was a touching inspiration, a sign of courage, determination
and ammunition for those you were about to leave, all who had gathered
for nothing but the road to an alternative world. With my eyes closed I
can see you so fresh in the long red sea march from Alex to Sandton,
taking every opportunity to inspire with slogans that told us that there
was no other way than that of struggle. For freedom was you call and we
will carry the torch as you constantly reminded. You departure is the
vindication that struggle is our birthright and we will forever will to
set you soul free.
Kiama Kaara: He inspired us all who met him and we are resolute that he
died fighting Capitalism through and through. We all will endeavour to
live his spirit.
Adelaine and Walter Hain: He was an indefatig‑able campaigner against
the Apartheid regime, never stinting himself in his fight, particularly
as we knew, on the Sports Apartheid front. He will be always remembered
and missed by his fellow campaigners all over the world.
Peter Hain: in his leadership of SAN‑ROC, he was massively instrumental
in isolating white South Africa from all international sports. Dennis,
we salute you as one of our freedom warriors
Ann Wolfe: I myself met Dennis only on two important occasions, but I
know how much he meant to my late husband, John Harris. Dennis and
SANROC, were synonymous to John. The occasion, on which I got to know
Dennis a little was when I drove with him and John to Swaziland, hoping
that Dennis could escape. We were in John's parents' VW Kombi‑camper,
and, on crossing the border, Dennis hid in one of the under seat
cupboards, so squashed that he could barely breathe I think.
John Minto: Dennis visited New Zealand in 1976 at the height of the
campaign to stop that year's planned All Black tour to South Africa. The
impact of his visit was profound. He was inspiring with his message and
infectious in his energy and passion for justice. That tour went ahead
in the face of the Soweto uprising and Dennis was at the centre of the
Montreal Olympic boycott by 29 African and Caribbean countries later
that year after the Olympic movement failed to censure New Zealand.
His impact on the international solidarity movement was immense which
others have attested more adequately than I can.
We admired his principled rejection of entry to the South African Sports
Hall of Fame two year back.
I finally met Dennis in April last year in Durban and felt greatly
privileged to spend a morning with him. I reminded him of one of his
poems called For a Dead African which had a big impact on me as a young
activist back in the 1970s. He wrote it after John Nangoza Jebe was
killed by the South African police and the final lines are these:
“Yet when the role of those who died to free our land is called, without
surprise these nameless unarmed ones will stand beside the warriors who
secure the final prize.”
The land is not free, the final prize is still beyond reach but Dennis
will stand tall with a name well known alongside those who achieve it.
Haere ra e hoa ‑ haere, haere, haere.
Gustavo Castro: This admirable man's life was so notable to me: his
life, his words, his person. Dennis hasn't left, he remains with us
forever. Dennis may rest in peace, for surely he knows that the rest of
us will continue to uphold the struggle.
Anne Mayher: Thanks, Dennis for taking the time to pass on your
knowledge and inspiration to so many of us. Your work lives on as we all
do our little part to push for a more just system. I think I felt the
earth shake a bit the day you passed to the next life, but your spirit
is present everywhere I go ‑ you have encouraged us to have the courage
to speak the truth against the most powerful corporations and most
powerful governments! You live on, Dennis! The deepest gratitude to you
for sharing so much of yourself with us.
Steven Mentor: When I came to Stanford University in 1976 I thought I
was going to study Renaissance rhetoric, or perhaps Modernism and the
experimental novel. Instead I found the anti‑apartheid movement, a group
called SCRIP, some truly amazing organizers young and not so young. When
Dennis Brutus died, my friend Chris Gray ‑ one of those amazing
organizers ‑ sent me a message that brought those days of protest, of
strategy, of reading and writing and learning, back. And I reread
Dennis's obit, read a good homage to him in Foreign Policy in Focus by
Martin Espada, and a fine essay by Patrick Bond titled What we learned
from Dennis Brutus' troubadour politics. And I'm struck by something. I
did study the renaissance at Stanford: the renaissance of a certain kind
of activism, linked around the world and intimately linked by friendship
and a feeling of reclaiming our lives from the varius isms and the
poverty of dominant cultural practices. And I rediscovered the
troubadours, the modern ones like Dennis, and the older European ones
whose vision of a world not simply dominated by Mars but also inhabited
by Venus, inhabited as well by flights of imagination tied to a new/old
way of living freely and joyously on this earth. So Dennis, wherever you
are. I'm raising this cup to you, and vowing to bring more troubadour
into my own life, more social justice into my own actions, and more hell
raising into the belly of this beast we must, and will, slow down and
eventually tame, if we are to survive as a species, and laugh to tell
Mitchel Cohen: My interviews with South African legendary poet and
activist, Dennis Brutus, who died last week at 85, will air on Steal
This Radio Tuesday night (tonight) at 9 pm (NY Time) and repeat on
Friday at 11 a.m. (NY Time) on NYTalkRadio.net (listen live!). It will
be podcast 24/7 after that, in a few weeks. You can hear this anywhere
in the world over the internet at http://NYTalkRadio.net, not on regular
Africa Action and Jubilee USA: Many Mourn the Loss of Artist & Activist Dennis Brutus.
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... Jubilee USA Network and friends mourn
the loss of a great friend, artist, and activist. We had the honor of
working with Dennis for many years. In 2008, Dennis discussed his
perspective for Jubilee on the role of the U.S. Treasury Secretary and
what should top the agenda of the new Treasury Secretary. Below are
highlights from Jubilee Network Council member Africa Action’s
meaningful statement: Sunday, December 27, 2009 (Washington, DC) –
Dennis Brutus, renowned South African poet, educator, and activist, died
at age 85 early Saturday morning, December 26th. 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 Brutus was born to South African parents in
what is now Zimbabwe and was educated in South Africa. His outspoken
activism against racism and apartheid during the 1950s and 1960s
resulted in the banning of South Africa from the Olympics and his
subsequent arrest in 1963. He was imprisoned for 18 months on Robben
Island, serving time with Nelson Mandela, and then banned from his
studies, his politics, and his teachings. Dennis left South Africa in
1966 for England, and subsequently taught at various institutions
throughout the United States. In 1966 Dennis had just been released from
the Robben Island prison in South Africa and went on tour in the U.S.
for Africa Action's predecessor organization, the American Committee on
Africa. The organization's executive director, Jennifer Davis, recalls
that he used to wander around her apartment in the middle of the night,
muttering poetry; her kids were fascinated by him. He later settled in
the United States and spearheaded work on the international sports
boycott. His poetry was banned in South Africa for years, though he
himself was allowed to revisit the country beginning in 1990. Adding to
his six other honorary doctorates, this year Denis was presented with
the U.S. War Resisters League peace award in September, and two Doctor
of Literature degrees bestowed at Rhodes and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan
University in April. He was also the first non‑African American to
receive the Langston Hughes Award and the first Paul Robeson Award in
1989 for artistic excellence, political consciousness and integrity.
In 2008, Denis was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award of the South
African government Department of Arts and Culture. Denis spoke around
the world on the current injustices of the international financial
institutions and their policies in the Global South.
University of KwaZulu‑Natal Press:
The University of KwaZulu‑Natal Press is proud to have been associated
with, and to have published an edited collection of work by and on
Dennis Brutus. We are saddened by and mourn his death, but we also
celebrate a life that remained revolutionary right to the end.
‘… when I came to adulthood
I challenged myself to
To admission and action’
These are the closing lines of a 2002 poem by Dennis Brutus. As we look
back on his life and writing, let us too be challenged to confront,
admit to and act on those struggles that we face us today.
Remembering Dennis Brutus
Beloved poet and anti‑apartheid activist Dennis Brutus passed away on
December 26, 2009. Here is one activist's recollections of Dennis which
reflects his vibrant contributions to art and politics even into his 80s.
Steve Bloom (Socialist Webzine) 4 January 2010
December 2009 ‑ 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.
A near literal run‑in with a hero of battle against apartheid
Mike Seate (Pittsburgh Tribune‑Review) 5 January 2010
Just before the year ended, one of my heroes passed away. South African
political activist Dennis Brutus, 85, died Dec. 26 in Cape Town. He
lived the sort of life they make movies about.
Brutus spent 16 months incarcerated with Nelson Mandela at the infamous
Robben Island prison after surviving a gunshot wound while fleeing
authorities. While in prison, he learned that the International Olympic
Committee agreed in 1964 with his campaign to ban South Africa from the
Tokyo games because of apartheid.
With his trilling, studious voice, his long, white beard and fiery
conviction, Brutus garnered enough international pressure to keep South
Africa from Olympic competition until 1992. By then, he had emigrated to
a temporary home in Pittsburgh.
I learned about Brutus on an episode of CBS' 60 Minutes in the 1980s.
He was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh while fighting the U.S.
government's attempt to extradite him to South Africa because he lacked
proper residence documents.
A federal judge allowed Brutus to remain because he faced political
persecution in South Africa.
I always hoped I'd run into Brutus — and eventually, I did.
About the time he was busy teaching in Pitt's Black Studies Department
and organizing worldwide anti‑apartheid protests, I was a bouncer at a
rough‑and‑tumble North Oakland bar called Chief's Cafe on North Craig
The gig didn't pay much, and what little cash I earned went to maintain
a rusty, smoke‑spewing Harley‑Davidson, which must have been
manufactured during a week when the quality control supervisor was on a
The thing spewed more oil than the Exxon Valdez and was so prone to
mechanical failure, I began riding around with a copy of Ernest
Hemingway's A Moveable Feast under the seat so I'd have something to
read when the bike inevitably broke down.
On a typical night, I'd take a half‑hour break and ride around Oakland
for a few miles, welcoming a chance to escape the noise and cigarette
smoke. Well, that and to look for co‑eds to impress. I spotted one —
what she looked like is lost to the years — and instantly started
twisting the rickety throttle in hopes the decibel level and cloud of
smoke from my half‑bald rear tire would impress her.
It did, I think, until gravity and physics took over, launching me and
the motorcycle into a wild, sideways skid straight down the middle of
Craig Street. When I managed to glance up from my death‑grip on the
handlebars, I spotted a man standing directly in my path, his long white
hair blowing in the breeze.
It was Brutus, a man who had survived the worst that a violent, fascist
government could throw his way, only to face death at the hands of a
reckless, show‑off kid on a greasy motorcycle.
Lucky for me — and history, for that matter — I regained control of the
motorcycle a few feet short of denying the world one of its great
political freedom fighters. Years later as a journalist, I interviewed
Brutus and told him about our near‑fatal meeting. I apologized for my
Brutus, a gentleman, managed to laugh at the memory. I'm sure it wasn't
one he soon forgot.
Epistle for Dennis Brutus
March on soldier
progression can not be kaput
forever and a day
your never‑aged spirit shall be extolled
if parting ways means ascension
perhaps bigotry tumbles down from the blue above
glow like all conscientious stars up in the firmament
if exodus orders descending graveward
chauvinism in the deep below
evil roots of capitalist bushes it fertilizes
plunge cavernously and squeeze this insularity out
out like a hot magma tourist attraction eruption
to free the poor from capiterrorism horrors
if resettlement constitutes lingering at legroom confinement
in the grubby air that asphyxiates us to paucity
be an incensation of full consciousness
it’s a mandate comrade ‑ ‑ ‑ obey it
long drawn up has been the memorandum
from your dust mound
liberators shall emerge
from your ashes
echoes of more fire
shall be heard
until capitalism dies
until turncoats repent
until ubuntu take‑a‑stand
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