South African poet and former political prisoner Dennis Brutus, who fought apartheid in words and deeds and remained an activist well after the fall of his country’s racist system, has died. He
Brutus’ publisher, Chicago-based Haymarket Books, said the writer died in his sleep at his home in Cape Town on Saturday.
Brutus was an anti-apartheid activist jailed at Robben Island with Nelson Mandela in the mid-1960s. His activism led Olympic officials to ban South Africa from competition from 1964 until apartheid ended nearly 30 years later.
Born in 1924 in what was then Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, Brutus was the son of South African teachers who moved back to their native country when he was still a boy. He majored in English at Fort Hare University, which he attended on full scholarship, and taught at several South African high schools.
By his early 20s, he was politically involved and helped create the South African Sports Association, formed in protest against the official white sports association. Brutus was banned from South Africa in 1961, fled to Mozambique, but was deported back to South Africa and nearly murdered when shot as he attempted to escape police custody and forced to wait for an ambulance that would accept black South Africans.
His books Sirens, Knuckles, Boots and Letters to Martha and Other Poems from a South African Prison were published while he
was in jail. His poems were political, but also emotional and highly personal.
He was confined, but unbeaten, writing in the poem Somehow We Survive that ”All our land is scarred with terror/rendered unlovely and unlovable/sundered are we and all our passionate
surrender/but somehow tenderness survives.”
In Prayer, written after he left prison, he proclaims, ”Uphold — frustrate me if need be/so that I mould my energy/for +that one swift inerrable soar.” Forced to leave the country in 1966, he
longed for home in the 1975 poem Sequence for South Africa, writing that the the ”secret is clamping down/holding the lid of awareness tight shut”, until ”some thoughtless questioner/pries the
sealed lid loose”.
Brutus emigrated to the United States in 1971, but his legal troubles did not end. The Reagan administration, which began in 1981, changed the policy on political refugees, making it more difficult for them to remain in the US. Brutus was threatened with deportation and his case was finally resolved in 1983 when an immigration judge granted asylum.
Brutus taught literature and African studies at Northwestern University and the University of Pittsburgh, a distinctive figure in old age with his flowing white hair and beard, engaged in protests against world financial organisations and in calls for
stronger action against global warming.
Over the years, he completed more than a dozen collections of poetry, including A Simple Lust, Stubborn Hope and Salutes and
In 2006, Haymarket published a compilation of his work, Poetry and Protest.
He received numerous honorary prizes, including a lifetime achievement award from South Africa’s Department of Arts and Culture. But in 2007 he rejected induction into the South Africa Sports Hall of Fame, 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.”
He is survived by a wife, eight children and many other relatives. – Sapa-AP