x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Dennis Brutus, apartheid's poetic rebel

The South African political activist and troubadour who fought for freedom and racial equality was imprisoned on Robben Island in the cell next to Nelson Mandela.

Dennis Brutus, South African poet and former political prisoner, died in his sleep at his home in Cape Town on Saturday December 26. He was 85.
Dennis Brutus, South African poet and former political prisoner, died in his sleep at his home in Cape Town on Saturday December 26. He was 85.

The poet and radical political activist Dennis Vincent Brutus, who campaigned vigorously to end apartheid in South Africa in the 1960s, saw himself as a modern-day troubadour, whose mission, rendered in poetic form, was to joust "up and down/with justice for my theme/weapons as I find them/and a worldwide scatter of foes". He succeeded in making enemies of most of the white population of South Africa, and a good many elsewhere.

Of African, French and Italian ancestry, under South Africa's racial code, Brutus was classified as "coloured". A mediocre athlete in his youth, he was outraged at the limited opportunities afforded black sportsmen in the neighbourhoods of Port Elizabeth where he was raised. His first campaign was for athletic fairness, intended to bring sporting competitions for blacks out of the townships and into the international arena and, by so doing, to show the world the grassroots struggle against apartheid. The campaign marked his entry into revolutionary politics.

A graduate of English and psychology from the blacks-only Fort Hare University, Brutus kept himself apart from the African National Congress and its various allies, believing his own campaign would run far more effectively if it remained independent. In 1958, he founded the South African Sports Association, campaigning relentlessly to break the whites-only monopoly on South African sport. Three years later, he established the South African Non-racial Olympics Committee and lobbied to boycott the Olympics if the exclusively white South African team was allowed to participate. Despite his personal sufferings in the name of the cause he championed - imprisonment, exile and the banning of his poetry - Brutus was victorious: South Africa was banned from the 1964 Games in Tokyo and all subsequent Games until Barcelona in 1992, when an integrated team was put forward.

When De Verwoerd's government sought to silence him, Brutus fled to Swaziland. Arrested on the Mozambique border, he was returned to South Africa by the Portuguese secret police. Shot in the back while trying to escape his captors in Johannesburg, he lay bleeding in the street waiting for an ambulance reserved for blacks to arrive. Subsequently, in 1963, he was incarcerated on Robben Island for 18 months, in the cell next to Nelson Mandela. It was a fertile creative period, spawning two poetry collections, Sirens, Knuckles, Boots and Letters to Martha, although neither received an audience in South Africa because of the censor's pen until Mr Mandela's release in 1990 finally allowed the poet's books to reach the shelves of his native country. In 2005, he returned to South Africa, settling in Cape Town.

On his release from prison, Brutus was placed under house arrest for five years, but negotiated a deal a year into his sentence to emigrate to Britain. He spent four years in London, working both as poet and anti-apartheid campaigner before moving to the United States. There he taught at Northwestern University and the University of Pittsburgh and gave his support to numerous high-profile causes, including opposing Washington's militarism, attempting to prosecute George W Bush for war crimes and calling for an end to sweatshops.

He remained vocal on sport in his home country, decrying the involvement of General Motors in South Africa in 1970, and visiting Britain in 1971 to demonstrate against the Lawn Tennis Association's decision to allow South African players to compete at Wimbledon. In the early 1980s, US immigration services attempted to deport Brutus, but he was granted asylum after protracted litigation resulted in a ruling that he would be in danger if he returned to South Africa. During the 1990s, he became a regular speaker on the global justice movement circuit, calling for reparations to black South Africans from corporations that had benefited from apartheid.

Last August, he called for the "Seattling" of the recent Copenhagen summit on climate change - referring to the infamous protests at the World Trade Organisation's Ministerial Conference in 1999 - arguing that several key issues, including greenhouse gas emission cuts, were not on the agenda. Fiery to the end, as distinctive for his flowing white locks and beard as for his indefatigable spirit, in 2007 Brutus handed back the statue awarded to him at the ceremony to induct him into the South African Sport Hall of Fame, claiming that some of its members were "unapologetic racists".

Much of his later poetry told of what he saw as 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," he told Democracy Now! in 2005. . Dennis Vincent Brutus was born on November 28, 1924, and died on December 26. He is survived by his wife, May, and their eight children. * The National