Remembering Dennis Brutus (1924-2009)

Dennis BrutusDennis Brutus, died December 26th in Cape Town, South Africa, at the age 85. Dennis was one of the National Whistleblowers Center’s founding board members. He is a world-renowned poet and was always a voice of the downtrodden and dispossessed. Dennis Brutus was born in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, of South African parents, who returned to South Africa after Dennis was born. He was exiled from South Africa in 1966. Brutus was a pivotal figure in the anti-Apartheid movement. He was a critical thinker who forged a strategy on how to bring the horror of Apartheid to world attention.

From his involvement with college sports, he realized that the South African Olympic team was not open to athletes with the best records if they were black. Brutus was determined to seek the exclusion of South Africa from the Olympics. He co-founded the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (“SANROC”) with the secret goal of documenting superior athletic performance by black athletes who, in violation of the World Olympic Charter, were kept off South Africa’s Olympic teams. When a representative from the World Olympic Committee (“WOC”) visited South Africa in 1963 Brutus broke into the meeting and presented the representative with SANROC’s documentation and was swiftly arrested for violating his banning order.

Out on bail, Dennis recognized the only way to forcefully confront the WOC was to force a meeting with the world Olympic executive committee at their next scheduled meeting in Germany. He slipped out of South Africa traveling on a British Subject’s passport (owing to his birth in Rhodesia) only to be caught by the Portuguese secret police at the Mozambique border who handed him back to the South African security police. Realizing that no one would know of his capture, he made a desperate attempt to escape once he arrived in Johannesburg. Brutus made a mad-dash run for it, jumping over moving cars and onto a bus. His escape ended when he was shot in the back at close range. Three large caliber bullets hit him one of which passed straight through his body. He lay bleeding in front of the Anglo American Corporate headquarters. Dennis refused medical treatment until a representative from the United Kingdom agreed to come to his bedside. An international uproar followed in the world press. Dennis recovered in the Johannesburg Fort Prison cell which more than a half-century earlier housed Mahatma Gandhi. He was subsequently sentenced to 18 months hard labor and transferred to Robben Island and placed in the cell next to Nelson Mandela.

These 18 months were the hardest times for Dennis. He suffered constant taunts, beatings and worse. The abuse brought him close to death. Yet, he scribbled poetry on scraps of paper that were smuggled out of prison and published outside of South Africa while he was still in prison (“Sirens, Knuckles, Boots”). A second set of prison poetry was published after his release (“Letters to Martha,” taken from letters he wrote to his sister while in prison, 1968). These collections are considered to be the richest poetic expressions of political incarceration ever written.

Brutus’ imprisonment flamed the fires of opposition to South Africa’s apartheid. The WOC finally excluded South Africa from the 1964 Olympics. Brutus is largely credited with achieving this momentous event. Dennis was breaking stones on Robben Island when he heard the news. The impact on a sports-loving country was immense. Brutus’ continuing efforts led to South Africa’s exclusion from the 1968 Olympics and the banning of South African cricket, rugby, and other teams from international competitions. It would be nearly 30 years before South Africa was readmitted to international sports, including the Olympic games.

When his prison term was ending, Brutus was confronted with either house arrest or leaving South Africa (with his wife and seven children). But he could only leave on an “expired” travel visa – meaning he would face a five year jail term the moment he returned. He initially traveled to England, living in London with his family from 1966 to 1970. During a Wimbledon tennis match as a white South African player took the court Dennis leaped onto the court and staged a one-man sit-in. He was arrested and charged with trespass – a lucky break for Dennis, who beat the charge on appeal owing to the fact that the match was played on the British Commons and the charge of trespass could not be sustained.

He later came to the United States where he was a leader in the South African divestiture movement aimed at eliminating U.S. investment in Apartheid South Africa. He initially taught at the University of Denver, then at Northwestern University where he be became a tenured professor of English. He also taught at Swarthmore College, the University of Texas at Austin, Amherst College, Dartmouth College, Northeastern University, and the University of Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, he became a tenured professor and chair of department of black community education research and development. Everywhere he went and lectured he sparked a divestiture movement often forcing colleges to divest their endowments from companies doing business in or with South Africa. Brutus’ work did not go unnoticed by the South African government, who listed him in a secret memo as one of the most dangerous people to the Apartheid regime. Shortly after the Reagan Administration began, Brutus found himself facing deportation back to South Africa.

I first met Dennis in 1981. At that time the Reagan Administration had initiated efforts to deport Dennis out of the United States. He faced an uphill battle to convince an Immigration Judge to reverse the INS’s administrative ruling that he be deported. Dennis was hated by pro-Apartheid forces in the newly elected Administration, mostly due to his highly successful campus campaigns to force divestiture from South Africa. The deportation order was clearly retaliatory. I heard him speak and I was immediately drawn to his calmness, his intellect and his devotion to doing the right thing no matter the cost. He was not only an inspirational figure, he was also someone who could not be stopped from doing what was right. I could not let him down nor could my brother, Stephen. He also inspired Stephen’s close friends at the Northeastern University School of Law, most notably Jenny Patchen and David White. In the spring of 1982 we organized a highly successful sell-out Pete Seeger benefit concert at Northeastern University, raising funds for his legal defense and mobilizing thousands of people for his support. Along with Chicago’s Northwestern University community, we led a letter-writing campaign producing over 50,000 personal letters of protest delivered to the INS hearing judge and to the State Department. That summer I traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress to pressure the Reagan Administration to drop its deportation efforts. Senator Paul Tsongas championed his cause. The Senate passed a resolution offering Brutus U.S. citizenship. Brutus turned away the offer: “I am in involuntary exile. It would be a compromise for me to take permanent residence anywhere until I can go home.” Instead, he put the Apartheid regime on trial and was granted political asylum.

Stephen and I remained in close touch and often collaborated with Dennis who, in 1988, signed became a founding Board member of the National Whistleblower Center. He remained on our board until his death. Dennis understood the power of whistleblowers and the importance of protecting them. One of his dreams was to spread whistleblower protections throughout the world, especially to his native South Africa.

After 25 years away, Brutus returned to his homeland for the first time in 1991 after the South African government announced that all exiles were free to return. After the fall of Apartheid Dennis stayed fully engaged with human rights, reparations and global and economic justice movements, remaining a leading strategist up until his death.

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 yet to confront the country’s racist history. He also won the Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes awards.

No doubt, Dennis Brutus was a brilliant man who accomplished great things. In the end, what strikes me most about Dennis today as much as it did when I first met him was his incorruptibility and unwillingness – if not inability – to use his stature to leverage fame or fortune. That’s not to say he avoided the limelight, he needed it to get his message out. Rather, Dennis looked to others to take over — allowing Dennis to stay in the “trenches” as he sparked interest around the world.

The trappings of power and greed when it is there for the taking is perhaps the greatest obstacle one can ever hope (or want) to avoid. Dennis Brutus did so his entire life and, to me, that is the highest accolade I can bestow upon anyone.

Dennis, you will be missed.

Published collections
Sirens Knuckles and Boots (Mbari Productions, 1963).
Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison (Heinemann, 1968).
Poems from Algiers (African and Afro-American Studies and Research Institute, 1970).
A Simple Lust (Heinemann, 1973).
China Poems (African and Afro-American studies and Research Centre, 1975).
Stubborn Hope (Three Continents Press/Heinemann, 1978).
Salutes and Censures (Fourth Dimension, 1982).
Airs & Tributes (Whirlwind Press, 1989).
Still the Sirens (Pennywhistle Press, 1993).
Remembering Soweto, ed. Lamont B. Steptoe (Whirlwind Press, 2004).
Leafdrift, ed. Lamont B. Steptoe (Whirlwind Press, 2005).
Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader (Haymarket Books, 2006).
Here are two JPG files that Mozilla Firefox users can install as their “persona.” It features Michael Kohn’s painting of Dennis Brutus.



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