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South African Activist Dennis Brutus Calls on Barclays Bank to Pay Reparations for Apartheid Profits

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We speak with South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus who recently initiated the launch of a campaign against Barclays Bank, demanding reparations for vast apartheid profits. [includes rush transcript]

In apartheid South Africa of the 1960s, Dennis Brutus was an outspoken activist against the racist state. He helped secure South Africa’s suspension from the Olympics, eventually forcing the country to be expelled from the games in 1970. He was arrested in 1963 and sentenced to 18 months of hard labor on Robben Island off Capetown, with Nelson Mandela.

Brutus was banned from teaching, writing, and publishing in South Africa. His first collection of poetry, “Sirens, Knuckles and Boots” was published in Nigeria while he was in prison. After he was released, Brutus fled South Africa on a Rhodesian passport. In 1983, after a protracted legal struggle, Brutus won the right to stay in the United States as a political refugee. He is now a professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Dennis Brutus recently initiated the launch of a campaign against Barclays Bank, demanding reparations for vast apartheid profits. He joined us in our studio last week and begins by talking about his most recent campaign.

  • Dennis Brutus, South African poet, activist and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN:Dennis Brutus recently initiated the launch of a campaign against Barclay’s Bank demanding reparations for vast apartheid profits. He joined us in our studio last week, and I began by asking him to talk about this most recent campaign.

DENNIS BRUTUS:We’ve just kicked it off, Amy, and we’re taking on the banks, essentially, and mainly Barclay’s Bank, which funded the apartheid regime.

AMY GOODMAN:This is Barclay’s?

DENNIS BRUTUS:Yes, and they also, of course, made a lot of money out of it. Now, surprisingly, they’re planning to come back to South Africa and purchase the biggest retail bank in the country, which is called Absa. So, we’re organizing a protest. We’ve got pickets out there already saying, “Barclay’s is not welcome,” because they were the allies of the apartheid system

AMY GOODMAN:In what way did they support the apartheid system, and were they kicked out?

DENNIS BRUTUS:Right. Firstly, they made formal kind of statements, but in addition they purchased $10 million Rand of bonds, which were support of the defense department; and they accompanied with a statement from the bank C.E.O. saying: This is a sign of our support for the system and a kind of good citizen approach. So, the record is very clear.

Now they are coming back again, and this time they would purchase the biggest retail bank and, in fact, interact with the people and profit from this new, what we call, 'economic apartheid,' as distinct from the old racial apartheid, because the wealth is still in the hands of a minority; although it’s true that a few blacks have now been allowed to become members of the board of De Beers diamond mine or Anglo American, the big gold mining corporation. So, it’s not an exclusively white system, as it used to be under apartheid. But for the mass of the people, it’s still poverty. They’re still living in shacks in the townships.

AMY GOODMAN:There was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It involved people who were involved with the torture and killing of others under apartheid; and also there was an aspect of it that was about corporate responsibility. What came of that aspect, and were reparations ever paid?

DENNIS BRUTUS:Yes and no, because the legislation which created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had a provision for reparations, but most of the people who were the victims of apartheid did not get any of that reparations. The corporations, you’re right, were supposed to contribute to a fund and contributed about one percent, but it was minimal and, in fact, the mass of the people still have not received reparations, which is why we’ve filed for reparations in the New York Supreme Court, we being Jubilee South Africa and an organization called Kulumane, which is the victims of apartheid. And between the two of them, we have filed in New York applying for reparations. So far we’ve not received — most of the people who were the victims of apartheid have not received reparations.

So, one, we continue that particular lawsuit, but in addition we have made a direct demand to Barclay’s saying, 'If you do not apologize, if you do not pay reparations, you are not welcome in South Africa.' Now, the important thing here is that Barclay’s is operating in more than 80 countries all over the world. So, when we organize a protest against Barclay’s, we intend to make it happen not merely in South Africa, but to coordinate it with action in all the other countries where Barclay’s is active. So, we can pretty much globalize our protest. If we’re facing globalized oppression in our time through the corporations, we think we can now develop a globalized protest, as well.

AMY GOODMAN:Talking about reparations, talking about apartheid, you, Dennis Brutus, spent time with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. You were imprisoned, broke rocks together?

DENNIS BRUTUS: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: You have seen the latest news of President Mandela coming to the United States, the former president of South Africa. He met with President Bush. Your thoughts on this? I know there was some concern among activist groups to give President Bush that kind of seal of approval.

DENNIS BRUTUS: Well, there’s a very striking difference between the Mandela who was quite blunt in his criticism, not only of the US entry into Iraq, but also the election itself; so, we had some very frank speaking at that time. And surprisingly, now we find Mandela visiting with President Bush and saying, “Oh, well, friends have this way of criticizing each other.” So, in a sense, he’s climbing down from his previous criticism, and I suppose the explanation is that when he came to the United States, it was mainly in order to raise funds for one of the Mandela foundations. So, it seems to me, being very polite, I would say excessively polite. And indeed, for people who knew him as someone who spoke out bluntly, this is not only a surprise, it’s also a disappointment. We think he should have maintained his position.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about Mandela’s power today and President Bush’s relationship with him and the current president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki?

DENNIS BRUTUS: Generally, Mandela has chosen to take the role of an elder statesman and to be fairly soft-spoken. On the other hand, as we know, that George Bush has been very cordial towards Thabo Mbeki, the new president, and indeed has called Mbeki his “point man in Africa” when it comes to questions like Zimbabwe. So there’s a much warmer relationship between Thabo Mbeki and President Bush.

Mandela was rather more distant, so it’s a little surprising that he’s now being more cordial. And as I say, the explanation is probably that he came on an enormous fundraising venture, met with some of the big corporations, especially the arms industry, and that explains the change, I suppose.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dennis Brutus. He has a latest book, a collection of his poems called Leafdrift. Some of these poems were written under a pseudonym, some when you were in prison. Can you talk about them and share one with us?

DENNIS BRUTUS: Well, yes. You’re right, some of them were written when it was a crime for me to publish.

AMY GOODMAN: Why a crime?

DENNIS BRUTUS: Others were smuggled while I was on Robben Island, smuggled out of the prison. But in fact, most of this is new and deals, in fact, with a new South African situation where, surprisingly, we 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. According to the World Bank itself, there are literally millions now below the poverty line, so that the situation is actually deteriorating.

And this is quite striking in South Africa. As water is privatized, as electricity is privatized, as people are evicted even from their shacks because they can’t afford to pay the rent of the shacks, the situation becomes worse. And it seems to me at the heart of the matter is the fact that the South African government, under the ANC and Mbeki, have chosen to adopt a corporate solution. They say, “Oh, globalization is inevitable.” And we think there’s —- that’s not true. You can have a globalizing process, which takes care of the people’s interests, or you can have -—


DENNIS BRUTUS: — a globalizing process which instead focuses on the corporations. You give tax reductions to the rich. You increase the tax on bread and sugar and coffee and tea and petrol, gas for cars, because these things affect the poor. On the other hand, you are actually cutting the taxes on luxury goods, so that, in fact, your whole society is geared to keep the corporations happy and allow them actually to go offshore so they don’t even have to pay tax. They can pay tax in the Cayman Islands or the Bahamas or somewhere. But 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.

AMY GOODMAN: A poem from Leafdrift, could you share with us?

DENNIS BRUTUS: Right, I think it would be appropriate to read a poem which is actually about our current protest. You may know, and I think you covered it on Democracy Now!, when we were marching against Kofi Annan and Colin Powell and the World Summit on Sustainable Development, people were marching from the ghettos, from the townships, to this expensive suburb called Santon, where you had this enormous expense, you know, lavish expenditure and talk about making the world a better place, when in fact the world was becoming a worse place. So, we have a poem about it, and I’m going to read that, which is just about the march.

    When we marched,
    Through slimy mud past riot-shielded cops in Alexander
    (This is the ghetto.)
    While children peered wild-eyed from dark windows,
    For some of us these were re-runs of earlier apartheid-burdened days.
    But, then, it was defiant resolution that drove our hearts and braced our feet.
    Now, sadness at betrayal sat sadly on our hearts.
    Our shouted slogans hung heavy over us in grimy air.
    We winced at familiar oft-repeated lies
    Oft-repeated lies.

AMY GOODMAN: Dennis Brutus, reading from his latest collection of poetry called Leafdrift. Why Leafdrift?

DENNIS BRUTUS: Well, I know people have been a little puzzled, and my own sense is that I was unable to find a single unifying theme. So, the image that came to me was more of leaves blowing around in the wind and then accumulating in a corner, kind of drifting together. So it’s a random collection. Some of it is personal, some of it is political. But I think “leafdrift” is a good word which gathers that sense of things together.

AMY GOODMAN: As you look back over your eighty years, your own personal, as well as the state of the world, and you look ahead, do you feel like society, civilization, is advancing?

DENNIS BRUTUS: Advancing, I’m not sure. But I have a sense of gathering energy and a kind of will for change, almost as if people are saying, “This is intolerable. We’ve allowed it to go on for too long.” When I’m in Porto Alegre at the World Social Forum or I’m in Lusaka at the African Social Forum or meeting in Mpumalanga and Soweto, the ghettos of South Africa, such an impatience, particularly among young people, that the world must change. There really ought to be a more — greater emphasis on humane values. This nonsense about hanging around in the shopping malls, you know, and competing for Nike or whatever, this is nonsense. We have to get over it. Humanity is about more than material things. And we really must shake off this kind of almost mystification, the way we’ve been — we’ve been caught up in a set of lies and deceptions, and we must try and recover our own humanity. So I’m very hopeful.

AMY GOODMAN:South African poet, Dennis Brutus.

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