“The perfume of freedom has burned my mind…”
When I finished reading this history of a remarkable and committed activist and the anthology of his sixty years of poetry, prose, and speeches, I regretted my own failure to talk with him four years ago. In a grassy field by the river in Porto Alegre, we were participating in the opening of the World Social Forum; I was carrying two of my handmade banners that many people wanted to photograph. A wispy gray haired man approached with a camera and asked me about the banners and chatted for a few minutes. He introduced himself as Dennis Brutus. I was speechless – a rare event – but managed to say: Are you the South African Dennis Brutus, the poet? Then, photos taken, I scuttled off in confused awe and never saw him again.
In my years of work in the international and local anti-apartheid movements and my pursuit of poetry that spoke to political reality, I discovered Brutus’ poetry and heard of his activism. But I knew few details of his life and work. This book of memoir, speeches, interviews and poetry is an excellent account of Dennis Brutus and informed my admiration of his courage, commitment and perseverance.
Classified as “coloured” by the South African government, Brutus’ parents were schoolteachers and they instilled a love of literature in their son; he also was able to get a reasonable education. At an early age he became aware of the injustice and inequality in South African society; an active boy, he saw the results in sport; non-whites had not the opportunity, equipment nor place to become good athletes. None were allowed on prestigious national teams. He saw the system in South Africa as a form of Nazism, developed and strengthened by the white South African government after WW2. Brutus was teaching school then and he began to challenge apartheid on many levels, including education and sport. He lost his job, was arrested, shot and jailed for his activism in1964.
The accounts of his time in jail are horrific, the conditions were appalling and both guards and prisoners were dehumanized and brutal in this terrible system. Brutus, as were all prisoners, was beaten and tormented; but he still cared for others he saw as weaker and more vulnerable – young men who were tortured until they accepted rape and constant sexual abuse. He managed to express his feelings and observations in poetry that carries the smell and feel of horror.
In Letters to Martha, he writes:
“…To what separate limits are they driven
and what fierce agonies they have endured
that this, which they have resisted,
should seem to them preferable,
In a series of stanzas entitled, Robben Island sequence, he describes the bleak setting and the soul destroying labour that prisoners on this infamous hellhole endured.
“ neonbright orange
on the chopped broken slate
that graveled the path and yard
bright orange was the red blood
freshly spilt when prisoners had passed; …”
Some died, others were broken, but Brutus survived; perhaps poetry and political conviction helped him through.
“…Take out the poetry and fire
or watch it ember out of sight,
sanity reassembles its ash
the moon relinquishes the night..
But here and there remain the scalds
a sudden turn or breathe may ache,
and I walk soft on cindered pasts
for thought or hope (what else) can break.”
Brutus not only survived; after leaving prison and going into exile, he helped bring the conditions in South Africa to world attention. He organized massive and wide reaching actions that saw the government South Africa isolated and despised throughout the world. Brutus organized successful boycotts of white-only South African athletes’ attendance at the Olympics and many touring sport events. In the early 1970’s I remember I heard a news report on CBC radio – I was living in Yellowknife, in northern Canada, at the time – that my friend, Don Grier in Edmonton, had been carried off a football field and was one of many protestors jailed because they demonstrated against a white South African team playing in Canada, an act, no doubt inspired by Brutus and his comrades. Soon South African became isolated in many areas – cultural workers refused to go there, trade and tourism boycotts became widespread. The Rand sank in value.
Brutus was working hard throughout Europe and North America to expose apartheid. One group that got support, even from governments like Mulroney’s Conservatives in Canada, was The Aid and Defense Fund to help families of jailed and killed political activists and to provide legal assistance to those arrested for their political actions.
This was a group I was also involved in and we were able to funnel millions to the needy in South Africa and give them hope and dignity along with material assistance. Brutus writes that international support was crucial for the anti-apartheid struggle and its success.
When the jubilation over the fall of apartheid and the possibility of true democratic government in South Africa had passed by and world attention moved on to other issues –like the end of the ‘cold war’ and new trade liberalization agreements, Brutus and many others saw the beginning of betrayal of commitment to social justice by the new government they had worked so hard to support and elect in the new South Africa.
Even as early as 1974 Brutus saw a deeper and more complex reality. He said then that the struggle was deeper and more complex than apartheid, “…the significance of the Southern Africa [he was including Namibia, Mozambique etc.] Liberation movement is that it goes beyond resistance. It is not resistance to oppression; it is not even liberation merely in the sense of freedom to govern yourself…It is not a local nor even a national struggle. We see ourselves as an element in the global struggle against imperialism….”
Brutus connects all struggles and remained to the end deeply committed to justice in South Africa. He participates in and supports the new movements against neoliberalism and privatization in South Africa, the oppression by the World Bank and the IMF and South Africa’s new role as a sub-imperialist power for the USA.
He is criticized for his global view and for his long distance involvement (he lived abroad for many years before returning recently to SA); but he remains connected, optimistic and active. When speaking about cultural change he says that, “…that one of the things we are doing is to engage ourselves in the struggle to recover and rediscover our humanity…” He sees that resistance is part of presenting to society that there are other ways of being and that creative political engagement requires that we participate in the creation of ‘another possible world’ as the Social Forum process calls it. In an interview in 2002 Brutus says that, “The reality is that Africa has been recolonized. It is the neocolonial process that is now paralyzed” by conflicts in which South Africa arms both sides, so he concludes, “don’t send in the killer to clean up the killing. Find alternatives among themselves.” A call that was also eloquently stated by Wangari Maathai in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 2004 when she said that solutions to problems must come from us.
The answers lie in all of us, not in powerful forces that help create the problem. This seems to me to be at the heart and to be the strength of Brutus’ life work – not only protest but constructive resistance that creates new ways of living together and serving liberation and justice, “in the struggle for the liberation of humanity in Africa and the rest of the world, in an attempt to achieve our full potential, our full dignity, our full humanity.”
This connected engagement is very clear when he talks about his poetry. He says he could not be a full time poet, that poetry is an outflow of his personal and political life. He says that the poet as a pet has no obligation to be committed to social activism – he believes that the poet as a human being, that all human beings have an obligation.
“We ought all to be committed because we are people, we’re all part of the same human environment.” He says he could not make a total commitment to poetry because it, “would do damage to what I now regard as essential to integrity for me. Which means social concern.”
Although some of his poetry may seem fleeting and fragmented, when looked at in the total context it is part of a continuous flow of life, work, feelings and relationships. That gives it a vivid power and a particular strength.
Just after I met him so briefly he would have written these lines in: At night, after Porto Alegre: South African Airways 747
“In this dim winged cathedral
soaring above oceans of silvery cloud
far beyond Atlantic’s tumultuous heave
we move, star-girt distant
from greed’s debris, genocides, calcined bones
curled in our private shrines
or bent over light-pooled pages
to a new world, new earth, where finally
our dreams can be fulfilled.”
Much can understood of Brutus’ perseverance and productivity by reading an untitled poem in 1989 where he wrote:
“…the creative act is an act
of dissent and defiance: creative
ability is a quintessential part
of being human: to assert one’s
Creativity is also to assert one’s
Humanity. This is a premise on which
I have acted all my life and it is
the premise I have offered to others
As an inspiration.”
Brutus returned to South Africa after the end of apartheid, he continued his struggles for justice in his homeland, calling for democracy and equality, not globalization and neoliberalism. He died in 2009 asserting his humanity and creativity until the end.