Dennis Vincent Brutus (28 November 1924 – 26 December 2009) was a South African activist, educator, journalist and poet best known for his campaign to have apartheid South Africa banned from the Olympic Games.
Born in Harare, Zimbabwe (then Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia), to South African parents, Brutus was of indigenous Khoi, Dutch, French, English, German and Malaysian ancestry.
His parents moved back home to Port Elizabeth when he was aged four, and young Brutus was classified under South Africa’s apartheid racial code as “coloured”.
Brutus was a graduate of the University of Fort Hare (BA, 1946) and of the University of the Witwatersrand, where he studied law.
He taught English and Afrikaans at several high schools in South Africa after 1948, but was eventually dismissed for his vocal criticism of apartheid.
He served on the faculty of the University of Denver, Northwestern University and University of Pittsburgh, and was a Professor Emeritus from the last institution.
In 2008, Brutus was awarded the Lifetime Honorary Award by the South African Department of Arts and Culture for his lifelong dedication to African and world poetry and literary arts.
Brutus was an activist against the apartheid government of South Africa in the 1960s. He learned politics in the Trotskyist movement of the Eastern Cape.
Although not an accomplished athlete in his own right, he was motivated by the unfairness of selections for athletic teams. He joined the Anti-Coloured Affairs Department organisation (Anti-CAD), a Trotskyist group that organised against the Coloured Affairs Department, which was an attempt by the government to institutionalise divisions between blacks and coloureds.
Brutus 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 sentenced to 18 months in jail.
However, he “jumped bail and fled to Mozambique, where Portuguese secret police arrested him and returned him to South Africa. There, while trying to escape, he was shot in the back at point-blank range.
After only partly recovering from the wound, Brutus was sent Robben Island … for 16 months, five in solitary.” He was in the cell next to Nelson Mandela’s. Brutus was in prison when news of the country’s suspension from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, for which he had campaigned, broke.
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. The book received the Mbari Poetry Prize, awarded to a black poet of distinction, but Brutus turned it down on the grounds of its racial exclusivity. He was the author of 14 books.
After he was released, Brutus fled South Africa. He spent time in Britain, and in 1983, he won the right to stay in the United States as a political refugee, after a protracted legal struggle.
He continued to participate in protests against the apartheid government while teaching in the United States. He was “unbanned” by the South African government in 1990. In 1991 he became one of the sponsors of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa.
He returned to South Africa 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.
In December 2007, Brutus was to be inducted into the South African Sports Hall of Fame. At the induction ceremony, 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.
According to fellow writer Olu Oguibe, interim Director of the Institute for African American Studies at the University of Connecticut, “Brutus was arguably Africa’s greatest and most influential modern poet after Leopold Sedar Senghor and Christopher Okigbo, certainly the most widely-read, and no doubt among the world’s finest poets of all time.
More than that, he was a fearless campaigner for justice, a relentless organizer, an incorrigible romantic, and a great humanist and teacher.”
Brutus died of prostate cancer on 26 December 2009, at his home in Cape Town, South Africa.
He is survived by two sisters, eight children including his son Anthony, nine grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren.