The Third International after Lenin

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Celebrating the life of Dennis Brutus

Editor's note: I had the pleasure of hearing Dennis Brutus only once: on the Oberlin College campus in 1988 or 1989. I was attending a Socialist Activist and Active Workers Conference sponsored by the U.S. Socialist Workers Party. Brutus was a quiet, passionate, and faultless deliverer of his own verse. Jay

An emblem of solidarity

Patrick Bond, author of Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation [1] and director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society, honors a friend and comrade.

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 U.S. court system.

Brutus was born in Harare, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), 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 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, organizing 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 incarceration.

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 U.S. in 1971, 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, 90 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.

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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 Organization, 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 Center for Civil Society, and for that university's press and Haymarket Books, he published the autobiographical Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader [2] in 2006.

Among numerous recent accolades were the U.S. 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 "ultra-left." 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 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, 2005).

-- Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader [3], 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 U.S. and Cape Town.


He shamed the shameless

sports columnist Dave Zirin pays tribute to Dennis Brutus' lifetime of organizing for racial and economic justice.

IT WAS 1976, and the Summer Olympics in Montreal had improbably become ground zero in the struggle against apartheid.

Several dozen African nations threatened to boycott if the International Olympic Committee dared to allow South Africa to be a part of the Games. Montreal's athletic jamboree was in jeopardy, and the cause of all the tumult, according to Sports Illustrated, was a diminutive South African poet who the magazine called "the Dark Genius of Dissent."

His name was Dennis Brutus. Brutus organized entire blocks of the world around a simple question: How can the Olympics say they stand for "brotherhood" and fair play if apartheid nations could join the festivities? It worked. The "Dark Genius" shamed the shameless and changed international sports forever.

Over the course of decades, as a dissident, refugee, and political prisoner, Brutus advanced this simple athletic argument. The organizations he founded, the South African Sports Association in 1958, and its successor, the South African Nonracial Olympic Committee, used it to hammer critical nails in apartheid's coffin.

For Brutus, this work in the sports world was merely an extension of a lifetime organizing for racial and economic justice. His death on December 26 after a long bout with cancer has created an incalculable void. Not merely because he was beloved as the "singing voice of the South African liberation movement"; not merely because Brutus held a reservoir of political lessons; but because he remained a tireless agitator for justice.

Days before the recent international climate talks in Copenhagen, the ailing Brutus called the proceedings a sham, saying, "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."

He also never stopped holding up the dreamy ideals of sport against reality's harsh light. Up until the final days of his life, while the leaders of South Africa celebrated the coming arrival of the 2010 World Cup, Brutus was in the streets, protesting the demolition of low-income housing to make way for soccer's international party. In December 2007, he publicly rejected induction in the South African Sports Hall of Fame, saying to 1,000 onlookers:

Being inducted to a sports hall of fame is an honor under most circumstances. In my case, the honor is for helping rid South African sport of racism, making it open to all. So I cannot be party to an event where unapologetic racists are also honored, or to join a hall of fame alongside those who flourished under racist sport. Their inclusion is a deception because of their unfair advantage, as so many talented Black athletes were excluded from sport opportunities.

Moreover, this hall ignores the fact that some sportspersons and administrators defended, supported and legitimized apartheid. There are indeed some famous South Africans who still belong in a sports hall of infamy. They still think they are sports heroes, without understanding and making amends for the context in which they became so heroic, namely a crime against humanity.

So, case closed. It is incompatible to have those who championed racist sport alongside its genuine victims. It's time--indeed, long past time--for sports truth, apologies and reconciliation.

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I HAD the privilege of interviewing Brutus extensively three years ago about why he came to see sports as an arena to fight for justice. His answer was typical Dennis Brutus, as I came to learn: refusing to be anything less than blunt and provocative. I asked him whether he agreed with me that sports could still be a lever to change the world. Instead of cheerleading the notion, he said to me:

My own sense is that sports has less capacity now to change society then it had before. For instance, the degree that sports has become commercialized. The degree that your loyalty is no longer to a club, like it used to be, because guys are bought and sold like so many slaves...

The other thing that really scares me is the way that sport is used to divert people's attention. Critical political issues in their own lives. Their living conditions. The Romans used to say this is the way to run an empire. Give them bread, give them circuses. Now they don't even give you bread. and the circuses are lousy.

But amid his critiques, Brutus was never a pessimist, only a "critical optimist." How else to explain that in his next breath, he also said to me:

We must, however, realize that the power and reach of sports is undeniable...It's kind of a megaphone. People will hear [political athletes] because their voices are amplified. Not always in a very informed way. Of course, when there are exceptions, it can produce magic: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, for instance, or Muhammad Ali. So it does help, and they do have that megaphone. But all-important is content. All-important is politics. That is decisive."

There are ways to honor Dennis Brutus and his memory. Read aloud his poetry at the first opportunity (try Dennis' brilliant collection Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader [1]). Keep his words alive to "produce magic" for a new generation. Keep fighting for global justice. And keep fighting to reclaim sports.

As people are criminalized in Vancouver to make way for the 2010 Olympics, as the poor are dispossessed in the name of the 2010 World Cup, we should proudly claim Dennis's well-worn place at the march, never allowing those in power the comfort of indifference. As Dennis said to me when I asked him how he could stay so active into his 80s: "This is no time for laurels. This is no time for rest."

First published at the Huffington Post [2].

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