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Book shines light on Dennis Brutus, one of South Africa’s most underrated poets

A bearded man with dreadlocks and heavy-framed spectacles gazes intently, looking ready to speak.
A younger Dennis Brutus, president of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee in Montreal, Canada in 1976. Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

Fortunately for the rest of us South Africans, the apartheid police state often shot itself in the foot. On the one hand, after a horrifying exposé of jail conditions in Drum magazine at the end of the 1950s, it passed a total censorship statute on anything that went on inside prisons.

On the other hand, it incarcerated three of South Africa’s best poets – Dennis Brutus on Robben Island, Breyten Breytenbach and Jeremy Cronin in Pretoria Central – convicted for anti-apartheid activities. Surprise: after their eventual release, all the jails’ brutality and cruelties came out in graphic print for the world to read.

Tyrone August’s welcome, and overdue, biography – Dennis Brutus, The South African Years – is based on the author’s doctoral dissertation at the University of the Western Cape.

This book both gives us readers the most thorough biography to date on Brutus, though there is nothing about where and how his seven children completed school and made their lives. The book focuses on how Brutus’ poems were influenced by the poets he read at school and university. Hopefully it will aid his poems becoming more prominent in future anthologies of South African poems, and in school books.

Brutus is one of the most underrated poets of South Africa. Among this reviewer’s treasured books are two collections, inscribed and autographed in his incredibly neat calligraphy.

All told, Brutus published 12 collections, starting in 1963 with Sirens, Knuckles, Boots and culminating in 2005 with Leafdrift. In addition, Worcester State University (US) brought out a selected poetry collection in 2004 to honour his 80th birthday.

That none of his collections were published in South Africa testifies to apartheid police state censorship: leftists passed from hand to hand copies of his poems. This samizdat circulated in handwritten, typewritten, and later photocopied sheets of paper.

Brutus was born in 1924 in the country today named Zimbabwe; his parents returned to South Africa two years later. He started teaching in 1950 and married in the same year. The government banned him from teaching in 1961 because of his anti-apartheid activities, depriving him of earning a living.

Jail and exile

Brutus fled to eSwatini (Swaziland), then a British colony, in 1963. The British colonial authorities refused to grant him a residence permit. He crossed the border to Mozambique. The PIDE secret police in Portuguese colonial Mozambique handed him over to the South African police’s Special Branch that targeted political activists.

He was shot trying to escape, and sentenced to 18 months on Robben Island. Repeated beatings, and harrowing assaults, culminated in months of solitary confinement, causing hallucinations and nervous breakdown. He finally left South Africa on a no-return exit permit in 1966 after his release.


Read more: Dennis Brutus: South African literary giant who was reluctant to tell his life story


His first job in exile in the UK was as campaign director of the International Defence and Aid Fund, which raised money to hire lawyers to defend political prisoners and to send subsistence allowances to their next of kin.

In 1971 he emigrated to the US, becoming a professor in the English Department at Northwestern University. In 1975 he co-founded the African Literature Association. From 1986 he became professor of African literature at the University of Pittsburgh. He returned to South Africa in 2005 as an honorary professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Involved in wider causes than just in South Africa, such as the Southern African Social Forum, he died of cancer in 2009.

Dennis Brutus’ achievements were two-fold: as a political activist and as poet.

Political activism

He joined the Teachers’ League of South Africa in 1950, which was the major affiliate of the Non-European Unity Movement. Mostly comprising Coloured teachers, it focused on anti-racism and anti-imperialism issues. But he was non-dogmatic, also participating in protests of the Coloured People’s Congress, affiliated to the African National Congress.

He hid both Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela (top ANC leaders who had to go underground to avoid detention) in his home when they visited Port Elizabeth. He was also friends and worked with Eddie Daniels and Patrick Duncan of the Liberal Party, a small non-racial political party.

As a sports administrator, he founded the South African Sports Association and later the South African Non-Racial Olympics Committee (Sanroc) to lead the campaigns to get whites-only sports codes boycotted by foreign touring teams. Their first victory came in 1956, when the International Table Tennis Federation admitted as member the non-racial South African Table Tennis Board instead of the whites-only SA Table Tennis Union.

Global football followed with the same ban in 1961. The 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo became the first to exclude whites-only or internally segregated South African sports organisations. Activists from both the Unity Movement and those aligned to the ANC built up this no-racism-in-sport movement.

Throughout the remaining apartheid decades, overseas protesters led demonstrations against whites-only Springbok (South African national) teams.

Dennis Brutus the poet

Brutus’ development as a poet was influenced by the English Romantics, including Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats. He also read Yeats, Eliot and Auden. One major challenge for scholars of his oeuvre is that censorship compelled him to publish his prose and poems under a bewildering array of noms-de-plume: Anon., J.B Booth, B.K, le Dab, D.A.B., Julius Friend, John Player, and L.N Terry.

What demonstrated his originality and courage was that virtually no English language poets in South Africa had published poems on politics since Roy Campbell in the 1920s. Mongane Wally Serote, Mandla Langa and Njabulo Ndebele were among the first literary critics to praise Brutus’ poems.

Probably his most widely circulated poem, For a Dead African, delineated the 1950s in its first stanza:

We have no heroes and no wars

Only victims of a sickly state

Succumbing to the variegated sores

That flower under lashing rains of hate.

His second stanza chillingly prophesied the 1960s detentions of anti-apartheid activists:

We have no battles and no fights

for history to record with trite remark

only captives killed on eyeless nights

And accidental dyings in the dark.

A topic repeated in his poem In Memoriam to Imam Abdullah Haroun, a clergyman beaten and kicked to death in detention by the Special Branch:

because he chose not to speak / he died

Brutus showed his political colours in print in At a Funeral about Valencia Majombozi, who died in August 1960, shortly after graduation as a doctor, after much hardship:

Black, green and gold at sunset; pageantry and stubbled graves

The ANC colours were then illegal. To fly them was punished by up to six months in jail.

Other widely printed lines come from Nightsong City:

Sleep well my love, sleep well;

The harbour lights glaze over the restless docks,

Police cars cockroach through the tunnel streets;

From the shanties creaking iron-sheet

Violence like a bug-infested rag is tossed

And fear in immanent as sound in the wind-swung bell

These relevant Brutus poems should be put up on the walls for tourists to view during the Robben Island Museum tours, which are led by former political prisoners as guides. This book should be in every library, and on your bookshelf.

Dennis Brutus: The South African Years is published by Best Red, an imprint of the HSRC Press.

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