Revolution #189, January 17, 2010

Dennis Brutus (1924-2009): "A Star of Freedom"

"I went to prison on Robben Island. I was arrested for protesting against apartheid. I was willing to make that sacrifice for the struggle. And I will continue as long as I am alive."

Dennis Brutus in an interview, 2008

Dennis Brutus—who fought fearlessly for many years against South Africa's notorious apartheid regime; who in the following decades stood front and center in struggles for economic and social justice across the globe; and who penned sublime, engaged poems available today in more than a dozen collections—died on December 26 at his home in Cape Town, at age 85.

As a young man Brutus spoke out against the racist system of apartheid, especially in the arena of sports. He formed the South African Sports Association (an umbrella organization of Black sports groups that demanded official recognition in South Africa and internationally) as a form of protest and as an alternative to the country's all-white sports association. Brutus was also at the forefront of an effort that led to Olympic officials banning South Africa from international competition from 1964 until apartheid ended some 30 years later.

In the early 1960s Dennis Brutus was "banned" because of his activism—which meant he was forbidden to publish his poetry, essays and journalism, and barred from meeting with more than two non-family members at a time. In 1963, after he broke this ban, Brutus was arrested and sentenced to prison. He fled to Mozambique when released on bail, but was captured and taken to Johannesburg. Attempting there to escape police custody, he was shot in the back and nearly died while waiting for an ambulance that would accept Black people. After recovering, Brutus was sentenced to 18 months on Robben Island, where his cell was next to Nelson Mandela's.

Forced to leave South Africa in 1966, Brutus emigrated in 1971 to the U.S., where he taught literature and African studies at Northwestern University and the University of Pittsburgh and continued his activism against apartheid. He published many volumes of poetry but his work was banned in South Africa, except for one book that slipped through under the name John Bruin. In the U.S., Brutus was persecuted by the Reagan administration, which tried to deport him in the early 1980s. But he won a political asylum case in a U.S. court and throughout the following decades Brutus lived in the U.S., continuing to stand with the people in many just causes, including the fight against apartheid.

In February 2000, Brutus was one of 185 people arrested at the U.S. Supreme Court demanding a new trial for framed death-row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. Before being arrested, he told the Revolutionary Worker newspaper (now Revolution): "I went to prison for my opposition to racism and I'm right here opposing racism and injustice.… We want a new political and legal order where there is justice." (Revolutionary Worker #1046, March 12, 2000, at

After apartheid was officially ended, Brutus returned to South Africa. But the change he expected to see, including a better life for the people, did not come—and Brutus became highly critical of the leading African National Congress. In a 2005 interview with Amy Goodman he said, "[W]e come out of apartheid into 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. ... And this is quite striking in South Africa … a society which is geared to protect the rich and the corporations and actually is hammering the poor, increasing their burden, this is the reverse of what we thought was going to happen under the ANC government."

Dennis Brutus was part of a movement of African artists who wrestled with the legacy of colonialism and a colonized education. And his writing passed through different phases as he struggled to speak to the common people. In 1973 he was invited to an international friendship table tennis tournament in revolutionary China. He had been reading Mao Tsetung's poetry and was impressed by the spare power of Chinese verse to convey much, with few words. In 1975 he published a book, China Poems, influenced by Chinese chueh chu, a forerunner of haiku.

Brutus stayed active and committed all his life. From apartheid to the environment he spoke out, took risks, and stood with the people. In October 2005 and January 2006, Brutus served as one of the distinguished jurists on the International Commission of Inquiry on Crimes Against Humanity Committed by the Bush Administration, held in New York City.

He was also one of the honorary hosts for an evening of reading on December 7, 2005 in New York of Bob Avakian's memoir, From Ike to Mao and Beyond. In a message issued in building for the reading, the hosts said: "Coming from diverse outlooks and perspectives, we are proud to serve as honorary hosts for this celebration. At a very dangerous time in this country it is crucial that voices like Bob Avakian's must be heard, his work and ongoing story of his life be engaged with."

In December 2009, shortly before he died, he urged people to protest the Copenhagen UN summit on climate change, recording interviews punctuated with poetry from his sickbed.

Over the years, Dennis Brutus completed more than a dozen collections of poetry, including Sirens Knuckles Boots and Letters to Martha while imprisoned at Robben Island.

There will come a time
There will come a time we believe
When the shape of the planet
and the divisions of the land
Will be less important;
We will be caught in the glow of friendship
a red star of hope
will illuminate our lives
A star of hope
A star of joy
A star of freedom

—Dennis Brutus,
Caracas, Venezuela, October 18, 2008

Dennis Brutus will be greatly missed.

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