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What we learned from Dennis Brutus’ troubadour politics


Dennis Brutus died at age 85 on December 26, battling cancer, climate change and capitalism.

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 the troubadour."

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 1980s."

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 crimes.

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 struggle.

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
Knight-erranting
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, impatience.

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 http://www.ukzn.ac.za/ccs


(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 January 2010.)

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