December 26 we lost one of Africa’s greatest activist/poets, Dennis Brutus. Brutus, freedom fighter, social justice activist, environmentalist, and poet extraordinaire, died from prostate cancer in his home in South Africa. Brutus, an honorary professor at the Center for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa had been battling prostate cancer for several years.
Born in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Brutus was the son of South African teachers who returned to their country when he was young. Brutus majored in English at Fort Hare University, one of South Africa’s historically black universities; following graduation he taught at several high schools. As a result of his anti-apartheid activities Brutus was arrested in 1963 and fled the country while on bail. He was captured in Mozambique and shot in Johannesburg as he again attempted escape from police custody. He nearly died when forced to wait for an ambulance that would accept blacks. He was then sentenced to 18 months on Robben Island, and was imprisoned in the cell next to Nelson Mandela from 1964-1965 for his activism.
While in prison he published several books of poetry. Following his release, Brutus was forced into exile where he was instrumental in the sanctions movement, particularly the international sports ban against apartheid South Africa.
Following the collapse of the apartheid system Brutus continued his social justice activity, working on behalf of South Africa’s impoverished communities. More recently Brutus has become a fierce advocate in the fight against global warming.
September 18 the New York-based War Resisters League awarded Brutus a Peace Award for his life-long advocacy. Despite failing health, Brutus was involved in a lawsuit against U.S. oil and automotive corporations for reparations to the victims of apartheid. In accepting the award, via videophone, Brutus urged activists “to fight back, to try and save our planet…”
I had the privilege of co-hosting that program. I have long been inspired by Brutus’ work; his poetry is honest and moving. My favorite, shared here, “I am a rebel and freedom is my cause.”
I am a rebel and freedom is my cause.
Many of you have fought similar struggles
Therefore you must join my cause:
My cause is a dream of freedom
And you must help me make my dream reality.
For why should I not dream and hope?
Is not revolution making reality of hopes?
Let us work together that my dream may be fulfilled
that I may return with my people out of exile
to live in one democracy in peace.
Is not my dream a noble one
Worthy to stand beside freedom struggles everywhere?