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Dennis Brutus – The Anti-Apartheid Activist, An Eclectic Poet
Dennis Brutus – The Anti-Apartheid Activist, An Eclectic Poet

By - Isaac Joseph

Posted - 06-08-2019

Dennis Brutus, whose full name is Dennis Vincent Brutus was born on November 28, 1924 in Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe). His parents were teachers and they were of French, Italian and African descent. When he was 4 years old, his parents moved to Port Elizabeth under the country’s racial code, which classified Brutus as ‘colored’. It was in Port Elizabeth that he attended Paterson High School and he later proceeded to the University of Fort Hare in 1948 where he graduated with a distinction in English. Brutus became a teacher at a high school in a nonwhite school in South Africa where he taught English and Afrikaans for 14 years before being dismissed for anti-apartheid activism.

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The Early Life of Dennis Brutus

Brutus became increasingly involved in the underground anti-apartheid movement while teaching in the school. He was attracted to the politics of sports due to the South African government’s bias of replacing over talented black athletes in favour of white ones who were less skilled for internationally competing teams. To fight against this bias, Brutus became involved in the establishment of the South African Sports Association (SASA) in 1958. The main aim of SASA was to encourage the integration of sporting bodies. Brutus later became the president of the newly launched South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAONGA) in 1962, which was intended to gain recognition from the International Olympic Committee over the discriminatory South African Olympic and National Games Association. SAONGA was however banned by the South African government; and in 1963, he was imprisoned for his involvement. He was later banned from writing, teaching, publishing, attending social and political meetings by the government. Brutus’ studies in law at the University of Witwatersrand came to an end as a result of his imprisonment.

After his release on bail, Brutus fled to Swaziland and tried to make his way to Germany from there to meet with the world Olympic executive committee. However, the Portuguese secret police at the Mozambique border handed him over to the South African security police. Knowing fully well that no one would know of his detention, he was desperate to escape, only to be shot in the back on a street in Johannesburg. Brutus lay bleeding on the pavement for about 30 minutes before an ambulance for the correct race group arrived.  An attempt by the Transvaal Indian Congress to rescue him from hospital in a coffin was however unsuccessful. After recovery, he was sentenced to 18 months hard labour on Robben Island. Brutus got good news while imprisoned on Robben Island that due in considerable part to his efforts, the world Olympic executive committee had suspended South Africa from the 1964 Olympic Games, a ban which was later extended to include almost all international sporting events until 1991. On the island, Brutus’s cell was next to Nelson Mandela’s.

Dennis Brutus’ Return from Prison

After the completion of his term in prison, he was permitted to leave South Africa with his wife and children on an “exit permit,” a document which prohibited him from returning. Brutus stayed in London from 1966 to 1970, where he worked as a teacher and a journalist. In 1970, he took a position at the University of Denver as a visiting professor of English for a year, after which he moved to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He was a professor of English at Northwestern from 1971 to 1985, and later took up a position at the University of Pittsburgh in 1986. Brutus was granted political asylum in the United States in 1983 after a judge ruled that his life, on a return to South Africa would be endangered.

He was active in a number of anti-apartheid organizations, especially SANROC (South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee), which led the movement to have South Africa excluded from the Olympic Games because of its discriminatory sports policies during the 1970s and 1980s. He was also a staff of the International Defense and Aid Fund.

In 1990, Brutus was “unbanned” by the South African government. And in 1991, he became one of the sponsors of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa. Brutus later returned to South Africa and was based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he was a contributor to the annual Poetry Africa Festival which was hosted by the university. He supported activism against neo-liberal policies in contemporary South Africa through working with NGOs.

Dennis Brutus’ Journey in the Poetic World

His first book of poems, Sirens, Knuckles, Boots (1963), contained many of the standard poetic conventions. They were considered as highbrow poetry— tight, mannered, formal, and sometimes formidably difficult. As a result of his schooling in classic English verse, Brutus made attempts to create multi-faceted lyrics that would challenge the mind, and arouse the interest of well-educated lover of poetry. Most of his complex verses were written at this period. Brutus decided to stop the formal, technical way of writing as a result of his confinement in prison. He wanted to creatively express himself so he decided to write in simple, unornamented poetry that ordinary people could comprehend immediately. Some of his works written at this period included His Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison (1968) which contained brief, laconic statements derived from his experiences as a prisoner. He intentionally made his diction conversational and void of poetic devices. Brutus was interested in being direct, precise and concise.

Brutus’ style of poetry changed during his exile. His works seem to present a balance between the formal approach of his early verse and the simplicity of his prison poems. On his journey round the world as an anti-apartheid crusader, Brutus wrote many nostalgic lyrics recalling the ‘goods and bads’ of his native land. This homesick verse, as seen in Poems from Algiers (1970), Thoughts Abroad (1970), and A Simple Lust (1973), was more rich in texture than the ones he had written in prison. Brutus visited the People’s Republic of China to attend a sports meeting in the summer of 1973. He was impressed by the extreme economy of Chinese verse and he began experimenting with epigrammatic poetic forms resembling Japanese haiku and Chinese chueh chu, in which very little has been said and much suggested. The works were brought together in a pamphlet called China Poems (1975).

In his later collections which included Strains (1975), Stubborn Hope (1978) and Salutes and Censures (1980) contained poems written over a span of years and thus in a variety of poetic idioms. However, in his later verse he seemed to strike a balance between the extreme density of his formal early verse and the extraordinary economy of his nearly wordless Chinese works. However, despite the changes in his poetic style, Brutus’s political stance never faltered. His life was devoted to opposing apartheid in South Africa.

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Dennis Brutus’ Awards


Brutus was to be inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame in December 2007; but at the induction ceremony, he turned down his nomination publicly, stating that:

“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.”

Brutus was later conferred in April 2009 by Rhodes University and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University with an honorary literature doctorate.  He also held six other honorary doctorates.  In 2008, he was also honoured by the the South African Department of Arts and Culture with a Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also honoured with the Kenneth Kaunda Humanism Award, the Steve Biko Award from Trans Africa, the City University of New York’s Langston Hugh’s Award and the Paul Robeson Award for excellence, political conscience and integrity.  Other recent accolades bestowed on him included the US War Resisters League peace award in September 2009. Brutus also championed a campaign over the battle between the Thekwini Municipality and the Durban Warwick Junction informal traders in 2009 over a proposed shopping centre in the area. As part of his political activism, Brutus penned an open letter about the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (Denmark) published in the Cape Argus and the Cape Times in 2009 in which he criticised South Africa for not taking a firm stance at the Copenhagen climate talks. Dennis Brutus died of prostate cancer on 26 December 2009 in Cape Town at the age of 85.  He was cremated on the 29 December 2009.


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