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Dennis Brutus (1924-2009): South African Poet and Activist Dies in Cape Town

StoryDecember 28, 2009
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Renowned South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus died in his sleep Saturday in Cape Town. He was eighty-five years old. Brutus was a leading opponent of the apartheid state and was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. We hear highlights of an interview with Brutus on Democracy Now! and speak with his close friend and colleague, Patrick Bond. [includes rush transcript]

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AMY GOODMAN: The renowned South African poet and activist Dennis Brutus died in his sleep Saturday in Cape Town. He was eighty-five years old.

Brutus was a leading opponent of the apartheid 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 — excuse me — sentenced to eighteen months in hard labor on Robben Island.

We’re going to turn now to an interview I did with him in 2005.

    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 and anti-apartheid and global justice activist Dennis Brutus. He died of prostate cancer in Cape Town, South Africa on Saturday. We did that interview in 2005.

Well, for more on the life and legacy of the great South African poet and activist, I’m joined now from San Francisco by Patrick Bond. Patrick directs the Center for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, where Dennis Brutus worked.

Patrick, welcome to Democracy Now! As you listened to Dennis Brutus, and, of course, as you spent the years with him that you did, talk more about his significance, this man who crushed rocks side by side with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island.

PATRICK BOND: Thanks, Amy. Great to be with you.

And I think the role that Dennis Brutus played, especially upon returning to South Africa after democracy in 1994 and living there full-time for the last five years, a really formidable, inspiring role for new a generation of people concerned about inequality and environmental degradation — his last campaigns, for example, against the Copenhagen deal, the very inadequate and unfair relationships of North to South around the climate debt. And, you know, even in his last days, he had just been meeting with the Archbishop, former Archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu Ndungane, about the reparations movement.

So he had this amazing ability to look backward, and he was fighting the big corporations that profited from apartheid, hoping that the process now going through the courts in the United States will become a very, very important marker for corporations to learn not to profit from a crime against humanity, at the same time looking forward and saying to the North and to indeed the South African government that the greenhouse gas emissions have to — have to halt. So he had this extraordinary ability to do the whole spectrum of social struggle’s history and future, and to do it with such grace, eloquence and culture.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go, actually, to a clip, on his eighty-fifth birthday. It was just a few weeks ago. This is a clip of Dennis Brutus calling for the Seattle-ing of Copenhagen, because climate debt is not on the agenda. He was talking about the climate summit and the protests that he expected. This was just before the Copenhagen climate summit.

    DENNIS BRUTUS: From now on, this is going to be part of our challenge, our part of the challenge to the greedy corporate powers that don’t care what happens to the planet. So we expect them to pay attention. We hope that we, ourselves, will pay attention. And then, most difficult of all, we are going to have to join that struggle. There’s not enough time. We are in serious difficulty all over the planet. We are going to say to the world: there’s too much of profit, too much of greed, too much of suffering by the poor. It must have to stop. The planet must be in action. The people of the planet must be in action.

AMY GOODMAN: Dennis Brutus on his eighty-fifth birthday. He was in Cape Town, South Africa. He died this weekend, his family around him, died in his sleep. He died of prostate cancer.

Patrick Bond, talk about his political history. After he was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela, he was banned from teaching and writing and publishing in South Africa — his first book of poetry, Sirens, Knuckles and Boots, actually published in Nigeria. And it was then that Dennis Brutus fled South Africa and came to the United States, ultimately applying for political asylum, a case he finally won, and then ended up teaching here.

PATRICK BOND: That’s right. He actually had a stop in Britain along the way. He worked in the ANC office and was a bastion of the sports boycotts movement. He was extraordinarily successful. As mentioned earlier, he was basically single-handedly responsible for pulling a coalition together that forced the Chicago leader of the Olympics, Avery Brundage, to make a U-turn and kick the white South African team off the 1968 Mexico Olympics and then, in 1970, had them banned. So those were markers of an exceptional campaigner, a very persuasive advocate of racial justice.

And I think at that point, when he also turned his hand to professional literary studies and became the chair of African American Studies both at Northwestern and at University of Pittsburgh, retiring in 1995, he then brought all of these capacities — intellectual, strategic and very, very inspiring capacities — to the South Africa struggle in 1996 with the Growth, Employment, Redistribution home-grown structural adjustment, coming back to South Africa, starting the Jubilee movement. He really put an extraordinary marker on post-apartheid struggles for economic justice, and later environment.

And then he was a central figure in Seattle, of the World Social Forum in early 2000. In fact, really, Amy, as you know from being there, at every G-8 and World Bank-IMF annual meeting, WTO protest, you’d find Dennis Brutus, out both in the crowd, in a very humble way, listening and learning, and often on the speakers’ stand providing inspiration.

AMY GOODMAN: The way he — his politics continued to evolve, and also critiquing the ANC, the group he was closely affiliated with, with so many years against apartheid in South Africa, Patrick?

PATRICK BOND: Yeah, I think in around about ’98, when the Treatment Action Campaign started demanding AIDS medicines, and 1999, when a number of the communities in the big urban areas began to revolt — and we now have about 10,000 protests a year that the police measure, about the highest rate per person in the world — and that really signaled to Dennis Brutus that he was a very welcome figure, as a wise leader of the independent left, of sort of new social movements that emerged. And so, Dennis was critical, really, in providing us the historic time frames of struggles that were timeless and his own principles and commitment and his generosity of spirit, and again these extraordinary poems that kept popping out.

Working with us in Durban at the University of KwaZulu-Natal over the past four years, we were always amazed that, whatever the circumstances, Dennis would have a new poem ready. He wrote several this year that are classics. Probably his best, really, were the poems of incarceration, as you mentioned, Sirens, Knuckles, Boots, Letters to Martha. Those will still stand decades from now as seminal works, especially here in the United States with such a high incarceration rate, really focused the word and the spirit of liberation in a form that broke out of the traditions and spoke to ever-expanding generations of fans. And people who’ve had one-on-one contact with him, we’re hearing from them from all over the world, and life-changing experiences, to be touched by Dennis Brutus and to have a sort of sense of his combination of bread and roses.

AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Bond, we will leave it there, professor at University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, close friend and former colleague of Dennis Brutus. Dennis Brutus is survived by his wife May, his sisters Helen and Dolly, eight children, nine grandchildren, four great-grandchildren in Hong Kong, England, US and Cape Town.

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