World-renowned political organizer and one of Africa’s most celebrated poets, Dennis Brutus, died Dec. 26 in Cape Town, in his sleep, aged 85.
Brutus was born in Harare (the current capital of Zimbabwe) in 1924, but his South African parents soon moved to Port Elizabeth. He entered Fort Hare University on a full scholarship in 1940. After graduating with distinction, he studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand, but this was cut short by imprisonment for anti-apartheid activism.
Brutus’ political activity initially included journalism, organizing with teachers and leading the new South African Sports Association as an alternative to white sports leagues. After his freedom of movement and right to publish was restricted in 1961 under the Suppression of Communism Act, he fled to Mozambique but was captured and deported to Johannesburg. There, in 1963, Brutus was shot in the back while attempting to escape police custody and nearly died while awaiting an ambulance reserved for blacks.
While recovering, he was held in the Johannesburg Fort Prison cell that once housed Mahatma Gandhi. Brutus was transferred to Robben Island where he was jailed in the cell next to Nelson Mandela, and in 1964-65 wrote the collections Sirens Knuckles Boots and Letters to Martha, two of the richest poetic expressions of political incarceration.
Subsequently forced into exile, Brutus resumed careers as a poet and anti-apartheid campaigner in London, and was instrumental in achieving the apartheid regime’s expulsion in 1970 from the Olympic movement.
Upon moving to the United States in 1977, Brutus served as a professor of literature and African studies at Northwestern (Chicago) and Pittsburgh, and defeated high-profile efforts by the Reagan Administration to deport him. He wrote numerous poems and helped organize major African writers’ organizations with colleagues Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe.
Following the political transition in South Africa, Brutus resumed activities with grassroots social movements in his home country. He continued to serve in the global antiracism, reparations and economic justice movements as a leading strategist until his death, calling for the ‘Seattling’ of the recent Copenhagen summit because sufficient greenhouse gas emissions cuts and North-South ‘climate debt’ payments were not on the agenda.
Among his many awards were eight honorary doctorates and the Lifetime Achievement Award of the South African government Department of Arts and Culture.
Uniquely courageous, consistent and principled, Brutus bridged the global and local, politics and culture, class and race, the old and the young, the red and green. He was an emblem of solidarity with all those peoples and environments wrecked by the power of capital and state elites. Given his role as a world-class poet, Brutus showed that social justice advocates can have both bread and roses.
He is survived by his wife May, his sisters Helen and Dolly, eight children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.