Socialist Worker

Dennis Brutus: the poet who persevered

by Pete Dwyer
Issue No. 2184

“Brutus is dead.” That was the text message that woke me up on Boxing Day morning.

Many of you will not have heard of Dennis Brutus or read his poetry. Yet he was one of Africa’s greatest poets and in many ways an archetype for the anti-capitalism of our age.

While I am always suspicious of hero worship (he writes, looking at his Liverpool season ticket!) it is important that we find inspiration and learn from the lives and works of others. We should remember that, like us, they are people who come with their own frailties, faults and contradictions.

It is impossible to capture the entire kaleidoscope of Brutus’ 85 years that earned him obituaries across the global press. But his determined anti-capitalism figured strongly in his life.

As a black anti-apartheid activist in South Africa his actions were daring and sometimes desperate – but he persevered.

He was served with a banning order in 1961 that restricted his personal movement and – devastatingly for an emerging black poet – made it illegal for his written work to be printed or quoted. He spent the next few years organising and fleeing from the police.

Brutus spent much of his life with a bullet lodged in his body after a desperate escape bid in 1963 when he was shot at point blank range and left for dead.

As he lay bleeding, white ambulance drivers refused to put him in an ambulance reserved for whites only.

After being imprisoned and singled out for severe beatings on Robben Island – the prison then holding Nelson Mandela – he was released and put under house arrest for five years, and again banned from writing.

Undeterred, he used to sneak out for meetings and managed to escape from South Africa in 1966.

Brutus used exile to tour the world as a “permanent persuader”, campaigning against injustice and oppression. In 1968 he smuggled the first pictures published in the press of the bodies of the 200 students shot by the police at the Mexico Olympics.


But it was his determination and belief in the ability of people to “give it a go”, even when others weren’t, that stood out for me.

At a time when many people were cowed by the brutality of the apartheid regime, he organised a meeting to launch a campaign for non-racial sports. Only six people turned up,and he knew them all.

Brutus encouraged them to persevere. And the campaign went on to get the International Olympic Committee to ban South Africa from the Olympics until the Barcelona event in 1992.

His hatred for capitalism was matched by his energy for building a global movement to bring about another world.

Age, and even broken legs, didn’t stop him. He attended anti-capitalist protests across the world, and boomed and sang at the World Social Forums.

Even in his last few weeks he was still writing poetry and urging people to protest in Copenhagen.

As a poet, writer and teacher his work was unashamedly political. He commemorated real martyrs, victims, fighters, their battles, victories and defeats.

Nearly everything he wrote was shaped by his very personal experiences of oppression and injustice. “The essential point to recognise… is that there is no uncommitted writing,” he said. “You have to decide which side you are on. There is always a side.”

But to label Dennis Brutus as a protest poet would be simplistic. He also wrote of loves lost and gained, of tenderness and sympathy.

In a poem about the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when 69 black people were shot dead by apartheid police, Brutus wrote, “And remember the unquenchable will for freedom/Remember the dead and be glad.”

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Tue 12 Jan 2010, 18:09 GMT
Issue No. 2184
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