Dennis Vincent Brutus (28 November 1924 – 26 December 2009) was a South African activist, educator, journalist and poet best known for his campaign to have apartheid South Africa banned from the Olympic Games.
Life and work
Born in Harare, Zimbabwe (then Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia), to South African parents, Brutus was of indigenous Khoi, Dutch, French, English, German and Malaysian ancestry. His parents moved back home to Port Elizabeth when he was aged four, and young Brutus was classified under South Africa’s apartheid racial code as "coloured".
Brutus was a graduate of the University of Fort Hare (BA, 1946) and of the University of the Witwatersrand, where he studied law. He taught English and Afrikaans at several high schools in South Africa after 1948, but was eventually dismissed for his vocal criticism of apartheid. He served on the faculty of the University of Denver, Northwestern University and University of Pittsburgh, and was a Professor Emeritus from the last institution.
In 2008, Brutus was awarded the Lifetime Honorary Award by the South African Department of Arts and Culture for his lifelong dedication to African and world poetry and literary arts.
Although not an accomplished athlete in his own right, he was motivated by the unfairness of selections for athletic teams. He joined the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department organisation (Anti-CAD), a Trotskyist group that organised against the Coloured Affairs Department, which was an attempt by the government to institutionalise divisions between blacks and coloureds.
Arrest and jail
Brutus was arrested in 1960 for breaking the terms of his "banning," which were he could not meet with more than two people outside his family, and sentenced to 18 months in jail. However, he "jumped bail and fled to Mozambique, where Portuguese secret police arrested him and returned him to South Africa. There, while trying to escape, he was shot in the back at point-blank range. After only partly recovering from the wound, Brutus was sent Robben Island ... for 16 months, five in solitary." He was in the cell next to Nelson Mandela's. Brutus was in prison when news of the country's suspension from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, for which he had campaigned, broke.
Brutus was forbidden to teach, write and publish in South Africa. His first collection of poetry, Sirens, Knuckles and Boots, was published in Nigeria while he was in prison. The book received the Mbari Poetry Prize, awarded to a black poet of distinction, but Brutus turned it down on the grounds of its racial exclusivity. He was the author of 14 books.
Release from jail
After he was released, Brutus fled South Africa. He spent time in Britain, and in 1983, he won the right to stay in the United States as a political refugee, after a protracted legal struggle. He continued to participate in protests against the apartheid government while teaching in the United States. He was "unbanned" by the South African government in 1990. In 1991 he became one of the sponsors of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa.
Return to South Africa, poetry and activism
He returned to South Africa and was based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he often contributed to the annual Poetry Africa Festival hosted by the university and supported activism against neo-liberal policies in contemporary South Africa through working with NGOs. In December 2007, Brutus was to be inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, he publicly turned down his nomination, stating: "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."
According to fellow writer Olu Oguibe, interim Director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, "Brutus was arguably Africa's greatest and most influential modern poet after Leopold Sedar Senghor and Christopher Okigbo, certainly the most widely-read, and no doubt among the world's finest poets of all time. More than that, he was a fearless campaigner for justice, a relentless organizer, an incorrigible romantic, and a great humanist and teacher."
Brutus died of prostate cancer on 26 December 2009, at his home in Cape Town, South Africa. He is survived by two sisters, eight children including his son Anthony, nine grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.
- Sirens Knuckles and Boots (Mbari Productions, 1963).
- Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison (Heinemann, 1968).
- Poems from Algiers (African and Afro-American Studies and Research Institute, 1970).
- A Simple Lust (Heinemann, 1973).
- China Poems (African and Afro-American studies and Research Centre, 1975).
- Stubborn Hope (Three Continents Press/Heinemann, 1978).
- Salutes and Censures (Fourth Dimension, 1982).
- Airs & Tributes (Whirlwind Press, 1989).
- Still the Sirens (Pennywhistle Press, 1993).
- Remembering Soweto, ed. Lamont B. Steptoe (Whirlwind Press, 2004).
- Leafdrift, ed. Lamont B. Steptoe (Whirlwind Press, 2005).
- Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader (Haymarket Books, 2006).
- "The Dennis Brutus Tapes: Essays at Autobiography", The Dennis Brutus Tapes: Essays at Autobiography
- Keith A. P. Sandiford, A Black Studies Primer: Heroes and Heroines of the African Diaspora, Hansib Publications, 2008, p. 108.
- Northwestern University Course Bulletin, 1982.
- "Dennis Vincent Brutus, 1924–2009". mrzine.monthlyreview.org. Retrieved 2009-12-26.
- "Dennis Brutus". Democracy Now!. Retrieved 2009-12-26.
- Douglas Martin, "Dennis Brutus Dies at 85; Fought Apartheid With Sports", The New York Times, 2 January 2010 (3 January 2009, p. A22 NY ed.). Retrieved 2010-01-03.
- UP Web site contact page. Retrieved 2010-01-03.
- Poetry and Protest: A Dennis Brutus Reader. Publisher's page includes video of Brutus and a remembrance by Amy Goodman.
- Dennis Brutus: a memorial statement.
- Biography at Southern Rain Poetry (see External links).
- "Black poet, an exile for 10 years, battles U.S. Deportation to Africa" by Dudley Clendenin, The New York Times, 14 January 1982. Retrieved 2010-01-03. One of a number of articles. The fight was extensively covered. This Times article and others only accessible with subscription, or by pay.
- "Dennis Brutus had earned a place in America" Letter to the editor by Anne Edwards, President, Authors Guild, The New York Times, 31 January 1982. Retrieved 2010-01-03. An illustration of the fight against extradition.
- Johnson, Tom. "Beyond Disinvestment: Campus Activists Broaden Boundaries". The Chicago Reporter. Retrieved 26 December 2009.
- "CAFA Newsletter". CAFA Newsletter. Fall 1991 (2): 1. 1991.
- Philadelphia Weekly, 9 January 2008.
- Martin, Jurek (2 January 2010). "Poet, political prisoner and a campaigner to the end". www.ft.com. Retrieved 2010-01-02.
- Dennis Brutus Papers, 1960–1984, Northwestern University Archives, Evanston, Illinois
- Dennis Brutus Papers on sport, anti-apartheid activities and literature, 1958-1971, Borthwick Institue, University of York
- "Brutus's page at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Africana Studies". Archived from the original on 2008-05-03.
- "Dennis Brutus reads from his work" for the WGBH series, Ten O'clock News
- African Activist Archive: online materials on Dennis Brutus
- Dennis Brutus 1924 — 2009 This "cyber-tombeau" at Silliman's Blog by poet Ron Silliman includes comments, tributes, and links
- Dennis Brutus (1924-2009): South African Poet and Activist Dies in Cape Town - video by Democracy Now!