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BOOKED @ Muse: Dennis Brutus 1924 – 2009

Dennis Brutus

Poetry and ProtestOn 30th January 2010 a round of memorial services held in honour of the late Dennis Brutus came to an end at the Baseline in Newtown, Johannesburg. Hoards of his wor(l)d’s followers came in song, word and sound to remember the life of a teacher, educationist and activist who died at 85 on 26th December 2009. This prominent writer and poet will be remembered for his courage and support to the disenfranchised majority of landless people and workers, among others.

While at a seven hour long memorial service organised by Sounds of Edutainment and wRite Associates to honour this legend of protest, poetry and prose, the Muse interacted with various revolutionaries, most of whose will never be seen or heard on TV. Artists and writers such as Lesego Rampolokeng, Patrick Bond, Moemise Motsepe, Vonani wa ka Bila and the Botsotso Jesters are among those who shared word’s power with the audience.

A documentary on the life and times of Brutus was run while performers and speakers took turns on stage. It was noticeable that most of the service’s attendees were not artists, writers or the well known socialites, but mainly ordinary women from local informal settlements and workplaces.


Brutus was well known among the underground poetry movers and shakers internationally. He was an organiser within the Anti-Privatisation Forum, Earthlife, and Jubilee South Africa, among other progressive movements.

Brutus was born in Zimbabwe in 1924 and raised in South Africa, where in his early adult life he was imprisoned and attacked for his contribution to the anti apartheid struggle. In 1961, he was banned under the Suppression of Communism Act. He fled to Mozambique, but was later captured by apartheid police forces and jailed at the Johannesburg Fort and later on Robben Island. Between 1964 and 1965 he wrote the collections of poems Sirens Knuckles Boots and Letters to Martha – two of the richest poetic expressions of political incarceration.

In the 1970s, while in exile in London and later in the USA, he took the role of, among others, poet, anti-apartheid campaigner, and professor of Literature and African Studies at Northwestern (Chicago) and Pittsburgh universities. His final academic appointment was as Honorary Professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Centre for Civil Society. While there he published the autobiographical Poetry and Protest in 2006.

“Brutus’ political activity initially included extensive journalistic reporting, organising with the Teachers’ League and Congress movement, and leading the new South African Sports Association as an alternative to white sports bodies,” comments his colleague (and co-contributor on many progressive articles) Patrick Bond.

Since the 1990s on his return to South Africa, Brutus became a pivotal figure in the global justice movement and a featured speaker each year at the World Social Forum, as well as at protests against the World Trade Organisation, G8, Bretton Woods Institutions and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. This anti-racist hero will be remembered for his struggle against any social and economic injustice and his contribution towards bringing closer “the global and local, politics and culture, class and race, the old and the young, the red and green,” says Bond.



What is important
about Sharpeville
is not that seventy died:
nor even that they were shot in the back
retreating, unarmed, defenceless
and certainly not
the heavy caliber slug
that tore through a mother’s back
and ripped through the child in her arms
killing it
Remember Sharpeville
bullet-in-the-back day
Because it epitomized oppression
and the nature of society
more clearly than anything else;
it was the classic event
Nowhere is racial dominance
more clearly defined
nowhere the will to oppress
more clearly demonstrated
what the world whispers
apartheid declares with snarling guns
the blood the rich lust after
South Africa spills in the dust
Remember Sharpeville
Remember bullet-in-the-back day
And remember the unquenchable will for freedom
Remember the dead
and be glad



Stubborn hope

Endurance is a passive quality,
transforms nothing, contests nothing
can change no state to something better
and is worthy of no high esteem;
and so it seems to me my own persistence
deserves, if not contempt, impatience.
Yet somewhere lingers the stubborn hope
thus to endure can be a kind of fight,
preserve some value, assert some faith
and even have a kind of worth.


Book details

Photo courtesy Moonstone Arts Centre


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