He was a friend of over 25 years and I was mentally preparing to
try to write something more. This piece by Patrick Bond does a
more complete and deeper service to this great man than any
I've seen or could do.
What we learned from Dennis Brutus' troubadour politics
By Patrick Bond
Bond's ZSpace Page: Jan 05, 2010
Dennis Brutus died at age 85 on December 26, battling cancer, climate change
Poetry and Protest was the title of his autobiographical sketches and verse
(published in 2006 by Haymarket of Chicago and the University of
KwaZulu-Natal Press, edited by Aisha Karim and Lee Sustar). I asked Brutus,
what links these two central aspects of your life? He replied, "The role of
Traveling from court to court during the Middle Ages, the troubadour was
Southern Europe's sage, a wit whose satirical songs offered some of the most
creative expressions of love for life and people.
Too often, though, Brutus' poetry reflected such acute pain, suffering and
above all anger at the court's ruling elites - surgically delivered, at
times breathtaking, at times didactic, at times counterposing society and
nature with dramatic insight, capable of breaking free from accepted form -
that his internal punning and literary references were typically lost on
followers who were first and foremost political junkies (like myself).
Trying to keep up with the octogenarian after his 2005 move to Durban dazed
even the most Brutus-addicted staff at the University of KwaZulu-Natal
Centre for Civil Society - where he was honorary professor and our visionary
guru - and UKZN Centre for Creative Arts, for which he served as a fixture
at their famous Time of the Writer and Poetry Africa festivals.
At least one overarching impression sings out from the cacophony of warm
memories: the Brutus philosophy that genuine liberation - not the half
measures won in 1994, when class apartheid replaced racial domination in
South Africa - represents a war to be waged on many fronts because as one
battle is won and many more usually lost, there are still others on the
horizon that make an engaged life fulfilling, that keep the fires of social
change desire burning long into the night.
No South African threw themselves more passionately into so many global and
local battles. But from where did the indominable energy emerge?
In his youth, Brutus was radicalized in part by the denial of opportunities
to play sports across Port Elizabeth's neighbourhoods. He was restricted to
competitions in the black townships, hence his first campaign was for
athletic fairness. This was an entrypoint into revolutionary politics,
initially with the Teachers League and then the Congress movement centered
on Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.
By 1968, Brutus had lobbied sixty Third World countries to boycott the
Olympics if the white South African team participated, and thus defeated the
notorious International Olympic Committee leader, Avery Brundage, a man who
was pro-Berlin in the 1936 Nazi games, pro-Salisbury after Ian Smith took
over in 1965, and very pro-Pretoria at the Mexico Games.
In the process, Brutus received deep battlefield scars, suffering bannings
(both personal in 1961 and affecting most of his poetry until 1990), a 1963
police kidnapping in Maputo followed by a near-fatal shooting outside Anglo
American's central Johannesburg headquarters during an escape attempt,
imprisonment and torture from 1963-66 at Johannesburg's Fort Prison and on
Cape Town's Robben Island (he was next door to Mandela much of the time),
and alienating times in exile from 1966-1991.
It was partly his infinite mischievousness that prevented exile from wearing
Brutus down. Former Bureau of State Security agent Gordon Winter called him
"one of the twenty most dangerous South African political figures overseas."
He was extremely effective. At the 1971 Wimbledon tournament, Brutus
disrupted a semifinal match played by Cliff Drysdale, winning acquittal for
his deed from the House of Lords. Other pranks with a bite included the weed
killer he and local students poured onto the rugby pitch to spell out
"Oxford Rejects Apartheid" just as a key match began, forcing cancellation.
This followed a march of 18,000 Londoners against racist sport, which
compelled the Springboks to cancel their 1970 tour.
Such fun never quite washed away the bitter taste of apartheid. The residue
lingered long after, especially when a former sports-boycott opponent, Ali
Bacher, won membership in the South African Sports Hall of Fame, because the
cricket administrator "organised international rebel tours in the early
Brutus was on the verge of induction at the same December 2007 ceremony, but
upon mounting the stage, he handed back the statue, announcing, "I cannot be
party to an event where unapologetic racists are also honoured, or to join a
Hall of Fame alongside those who flourished under racist sport. Their
inclusion is a deception because of their unfair advantage, as so many
talented black athletes were excluded from sport opportunities. Moveover,
this Hall ignores the fact that some sportspersons and administrators
defended, supported and legitimised apartheid."
Such deep principle led Judge Irving Schwartz to declare, "There is no
question that Professor Brutus has made himself hated by just about every
[white] South African." Schwartz rebuffed Reagan Administration efforts to
expel Brutus from the United States in 1983.
Those three decades in the US spent teaching at leading universities
(Northwestern, Pittsburgh, Dartmouth, Swarthmore and others) gave Brutus
opportunities for high-profile support to every crucial - even if
frustrated - lefty struggle: ending the unfair incarcerations of
Philadelphia poet Mumia Abu Jamal, American Indian Movement leader Leonard
Peltier and Guantanamo Bay prisoners, halting sweatshops, imposing Boycott
Divestment Sanctions on Israel, building Burmese solidarity, opposing
Washington's militarism by following Thoreau's lead and refusing to pay a
portion of his taxes, and attempting to prosecute George Bush for war
Without much if anything to show for these efforts - aside from his role in
the successful Navy-Vieques protest against weapons testing on the Puerto
Rican island - what did Brutus do, then, upon returning to South Africa? In
1998, he and Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane inaugurated Jubilee South
Africa to demand rejection of inherited apartheid debt, which Trevor
Manuel's finance ministry was dutifully repaying, and to then launch the
World Bank Bonds Boycott, aimed at defunding Washington's nerve centre of
free market ideology.
Brutus and Soweto activist Trevor Ngwane initiated the latter campaign at
the April 16 2000 Washington protests against a Bank and International
Monetary Fund meeting. At the world's largest private pension fund,
TIAA-CREF, Brutus then persuaded trustees to divest World Bank bond
investments, just as he had twenty years earlier during the anti-apartheid
And three months before the infamous Battle of Seattle at the World Trade
Organisation summit in November 1999, Brutus provided a major rally this
accurate premonition: "We are going to set in motion a movement and a demand
and a protest around the world which is going to say no to the WTO and it is
going to start right here in Seattle!" The WTO never recovered.
Indeed, as recently as last April, the IMF also looked down and out - losing
major borrowers, operating in the red and retrenching a tenth of its
economists - until Manuel spearheaded a $750 billion bailout by the G20,
infuriating Brutus. As Brutus put it in 2001, "Manuel seems to be in the
pockets of the World Bank and IMF. He is doing their dirty work in South
Africa and covering up for them by being the token African chair on their
board. Legitimizing the global corporate agenda they support. I believe this
is criminal. As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, we are facing a
global economic divide as profound as the racial divide which separated
South Africans. This is global apartheid."
Other SA-based campaigning included leadership in protests numbering 10,000
against the UN's World Conference Against Racism in 2001 - for failing to
include Zionism and reparations for slavery, colonialism and apartheid on
the agenda - and 30,000 against the World Summit on Sustainable Development
in 2002, because of the UN turn to water privatization, carbon trading and
similar market-environmental strategies.
Brutus was subsequently the highest-profile plaintiff in the lawsuit filed
by Jubilee and the Khulumani Support Group filed apartheid reparations,
fighting not only three dozen corporations which made profits and interest
in SA prior to 1994, but also the Mbeki regime which sided with the Bush
regime and capital. Last October, Pretoria finally reversed that position,
to Brutus' satisfaction, and in a visit to his bedside two days before
Brutus died, Ndungane reported progress in negotiations. A few months
earlier, Brutus was cheered by news that under similar pressure, Shell oiled
coughed up reparations in the Ken Saro-Wiwa case.
Over the past two years, Brutus led Durban demonstrations at the US
Consulate against Washinkgton's Islamophobic travel ban on academic Adam
Habib (founder of our Centre for Civil Society), against the Israeli
ambassador's visit and Durban port trade with Israel, and against forced
removals associated with the 2010 World Cup. He was active in Zimbabwe and
Tamil solidarity, and a variety of other local eco-social justice struggles.
Brutus was usually labeled 'ultra-left' by centre-leftists in the ruling
party and Communist Party. "Dennis the Menace!", roared Mbeki aide Essop
Pahad in a 2002 statement to The Sowetan just before the big Johannesburg
protest march: "We cannot not allow our modest achievements to be wrecked
through anarchy. Opponents of democracy seek such destruction."
The democratic destruction of Mbeki's AIDS, macroeconomic and municipal
privatization policies was Brutus' agenda. He was pleased that Treatment
Action Campaign activists, trade unions and communists made impressive
headway, kicking Mbeki out by mid- 2008.
But it was his international vision that he is most remembered for,
testifies Shalmali Guttal of Focus on the Global South: "He was always
sensitive, inspiring and so supportive of even the smallest acts of
resistance to imperialism, racism and exploitation that we felt powerful
listening to him, and confident that we could change things."
According to Nairobi-based Action Aid staffer Brian Kagoro, "He often
reminded us that poverty was not a gift from God, or the result of some
misfortune but rather the curse of a global political and economic system
that rapes the environment, destroys humanity, shreds dignity, shatters
freedom and shuns equality. We had the privilege of benefiting from his
wisdom, candour and relentless humour in the several training sessions that
he conducted for us on global justice issues. Comrade Dennis was as
outstanding performing a one-man play of Karl Marx as he was penning out
poetry on social justice."
And as Noam Chomsky recounted last week, Brutus was "a great artist and
intrepid warrior in the unending struggle for justice and freedom. He will
long be remembered with honor, respect, and affection, and his life will be
a permanent model for others to try to follow, as best they can."
Then they will follow Brutus into myriad political battles, as in this
1978 self-effacing description:
I will be the world's troubadour
if not my country's
jousting up and down
with justice for my theme
weapons as I find them
and a world-wide scatter of foes
Being what I am
a compound of speech and thoughts and song and girded by indignation and
accoutred with some undeniable scars surely I may be this cavalier?
Cavalier? A better characterization is the title of another Brutus poetry
collection: Stubborn Hope (1977).
Endurance is a passive quality,
transforms nothing, contests nothing
can change no state to something better
and is worthy of no high esteem;
and so it seems to me my own persistence deserves, if not contempt,
Yet somewhere lingers the stubborn hope
thus to endure can be a kind of fight,
preserve some value, assert some faith
and even have a kind of worth.
Memorials for Dennis Brutus will be held in Cape Town (6 January), San
Francisco (8 January), Washington and Philadelphia (10 January), Port
Elizabeth (14 January), Benin City (16 January), New York (17 January), as
well as in Durban, Johannesburg, London, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Western
Massachusetts (to be announced); for more information see
(Patrick Bond directs the UKZN Centre for Civil Society, and like thousands
of US students during the 1980s, was politicised by Brutus. A short version
of this article was published in the Johannesburg Sunday Independent, 3
From: Z Net - The Spirit Of Resistance Lives