World-renowned political organizer and one of Africa’s most celebrated poets, Dennis Brutus, aged 85, died early on December 26 in Cape Town. 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 an Alien Tort Claims Act case against major firms which is now making progress in the U.S. courts.
Brutus was born in Harare in 1924, but his South African parents soon moved to Port Elizabeth where Brutus 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’s 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 being banned 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 the 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 then transferred to Robben Island where he was imprisoned in the cell next to Nelson Mandela. In 1964-65, he 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. He also helped organize major African writers’ organizations with his colleagues Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.
Following the political transition in South Africa, Brutus resumed activities with grassroots social movements in his home country. In the late 1990s, he 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, G-8, 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 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 Kwa-Zulu-Natal Centre for Civil Society. For that university’s press and Haymarket Press, he published the autobiographical Poetry and Protest 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’s 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 the 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. Given his role as a world-class poet, Brutus showed that social justice advocates can have both bread and roses.
Patrick Bond is professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, where he has directed the Centre for Civil Society since 2004.