by Khanyisa Tabata & Adrian Louw
Family and friends of South African poet, teacher, activist, and a fighter against oppression Dennis Brutus gathered at the Iziko Museum in Cape Town on Wednesday, 6 January 2010 to pay tribute to this remarkable man.
Dennis Vincent Brutus was born on the 28 November 1924, Harare, Zimbabwe (formerly Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia) to South African parents. His parents moved back home to Port Elizabeth when he was 4 years old.
In 1959, Brutus helped form the South African Sports Association as founding secretary. In 1962, he helped form a new group to challenge South Africa’s official Olympic Committee. The organization, the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, of which he was president, persuaded Olympic committees from other countries to vote to suspend South Africa from the 1964 and 1968 Olympics.
In 1970, the group gathered enough votes from national committees, particularly those in Africa and Asia, to expel South Africa from the Olympic movement.
He was also a member of the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department organisation (Anti-CAD), a group that organised against the Coloured Affairs Department through which the nationalist government attempted to institutionalise divisions between blacks and coloureds.
He was arrested in 1960 for breaking the terms of his “banning,” which were he could not meet with more than two people outside his family, and convicted to 18 months in jail. While trying to escape, he was shot in the back at point-blank range. While recovering from the wound, Brutus was sent Robben Island for 16 months.
Brutus was forbidden to teach, write and publish in South Africa.
His first collection of poetry, Sirens, Knuckles and Boots, was published in Nigeria while he was in prison and received the Mbari Poetry Prize, (an award to black poets). He declined the prize because of the racial exclusivity of the prize.
After he was released, Brutus left South Africa and in 1983, he won the right to stay in the United States as a refugee.
He continued to participate in protests against the apartheid government while teaching in the United States.
He returned to South Africa after his “unbanning” by the SA government in 1990 and was based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where he often contributed to the annual Poetry Africa Festival hosted by the University and supported activism against neo-liberal policies in contemporary South Africa through working with NGOs.
At an induction ceremony in 2007 into the South African Sports Hall of Fame, he publicly turned down his nomination, 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.”
In the memorial Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane described Brutus as fearless, a hero who served people selflessly.
Ndungane added that Brutus will always be remembered.
Brutus died on 26 December 2009, at his home in Cape Town, South Africa. He is survived by his wife, May; two sisters; eight children; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
A selection of audio clips from the memorial service:
* The original version of this story was published by Bush Radio News