On Seeing “Invictus” the Weekend Dennis Brutus Died

I saw the Nelson Mandela movie “Invictus” this weekend, the same weekend that the great South African poet Dennis Brutus died.


After being shot in the back in 1963, Brutus was imprisoned on Robben Island in a cell right next to Mandela’s, then exiled to the United States.


He was a leading anti-apartheid activist here, and continued to champion the cause of social justice globally after the fall of the apartheid regime.


I met him a couple times. He was an imposing figure, with a rich and distinctive voice, who bore the scars of apartheid nobly.


Just like Nelson Mandela.


But watching the film, you get the sense that the anti-apartheid struggle was almost all Nelson Mandela.


You don’t get to see the mass movement that led to its overthrow, the movement that Mandela and Brutus were a part of.


You don’t have any hint that Mandela himself and the African National Congress advocated armed struggle, or that a black consciousness movement, led by Stephen Biko, galvanized another generation, or that massive strikes by labor unions threatened to cripple the South African economy.


And, for that matter, you don’t get to see the hideousness of apartheid—the shooting at protesters, the torture of prisoners (like Biko) to death, the daily humiliations of the pass system, and the total economic, social, and political subjugation of blacks.


All you see is Morgan Freeman as Mandela, and every move he makes is glorified. Freeman and the scriptwriter depict him as preternaturally wise in everything he does. At one point, his aide asks him about where South Africa should turn for foreign investment. And he responds, instantly, to the United States.


Yet Mandela’s decision to adopt a free market orientation has had disastrous consequences for South Africa, and Dennis Brutus rightly criticized him and the African National Congress for it.


Speaking on Democracy Now! in September 2008, Brutus characterized the ANC’s economic policy this way. “First we keep the corporations happy. We don’t want them leaving the country. And if the people have to wait—questions of housing, jobs, education—all of that will have to wait.” As a result, he said, people are “living in the shacks and in the shanties, as they were under apartheid, still living under the same conditions.”


Brutus wasn’t the only one to fault Mandela and the ANC for kowtowing to neoliberalism. Naomi Klein in “The Shock Doctrine” writes that South Africa “stands as a living testament to what happens when economic reform is severed from political transformation. Politically, its people have the right to vote, civil liberties and majority rule. Yet economically, South Africa has surpassed Brazil as the most unequal society in the world.”


Yes, Mandela is a hero. I have a poster of him up on my office wall. But beware hero worship.


As for Dennis Brutus, a fond farewell, and condolences to his family. At college, I knew his son Tony, a wonderful person in his own right. Tony, I hug you from afar.


Dennis Brutus, in a poem from “Sirens, Knuckles, Boots,” wrote:


“Most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror, / rendered unlovely and unlovable; / sundered are we and all our passionate surrender / but somehow tenderness survives.”


Thank you, Dennis Brutus, for fighting the good fight, and for underscoring the triumph of tenderness.

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