Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Wincing at oft repeated lies": in memory of Dennis Brutus (1924-2009)

This piece was first published in December 2009.

"Somehow we survive

and tenderness, frustrated does not wither.
Investigating searchlights rakeour naked unprotected club the peeling door.
But somehow we survive
severance, deprivation, loss.
Patrols uncoil along the asphalt dark
hissing their menace to our lives,most cruel, all our land is scarred with terror,
rendered unlovely and unlovable:
sundered are we and all our passionate surrender

but somehow tenderness survive.

Dennis Brutus "Somehow We Survive"

There are some people whose lives inspire the rest of us to never lose our voice on social justice and human rights. The South African anti-apartheid activist, poet, social justice campaigner and academic Dennis Brutus is one such person.

Amy Goodman and the Democracy Now team (here, here and here), Dave Zurin, Patrick Bond and the team at Rabble have written fine pieces in tribute to the live and legacy of Dennis Brutus who died in Capetown in the days after Xmas. Brutus, who was recognized as one of Africa's finest poets, died at age 85 after an amazing and inspiring life spent fighting for economic and social justice and human rights. Brutus published over a dozen books of poetry, including, a 2006 compilation of his work, Poetry and Protest. Many of his poems were written secretly when he was avoiding the South African authorities or in prison.

Brutus political activism began as protest against the white domination of sport in South Africa where he pioneered the idea of using sport as a political lever for political change. In 1958 he formed the South African Sports Association and the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee. Brutus believed passionately in the potential of sport to drive political change although as Dave Zirin points out Brutus came to believe that was no longer the case, having recently said
"My own sense is that is that sports has less capacity now to change society than it did before.. sports has become so commercialized.. the other thing that really scares me is the way sport is used to divert people's attention... We must however realize the power and reach of sports is undeniable.. People will hear political athletes because their voice is amplified".
Brutus publicly rejected induction into the South African Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, famously saying at the awards ceremony: "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 1963 Brutus was arrested by the South African government for anti-apartheid activities and spent 18 months on Robben Island at the same time as Nelson Mandela. In 1966 he was exiled from South Africa and went to the US where he lived as a stateless refugee for decades, avoiding efforts by the Reagan government to deport him. Brutus was instrumental in achieving sporting boycotts of South Africa and his activism resulted in the banning of South Africa from the Olympics from 1968 onwards. Brutus returned to South Africa in 1994 where he became a vocal critic of the ANC government.

Up until his death Brutus remained active in global struggles for social justice and economic justice, anti-privatization, corporate exploitation, debt forgiveness and human rights. He had recently protested against the the ways people in South Africa were being dispossessed by development for the 2010 soccer world cup.

In recent years he initiated campaigns against large corporations, such as Barclay’s Bank, Exxon Mobil, BP, Citigroup, General Motors, and Ford demanding reparations for vast apartheid profits. Days before the Copenhagen climate change summit he called the gathering a sham saying:
" We are in serious difficulty all over the planet. We are going to say to the world: There's too much of profit, too much of greed, too much of suffering by the poor.. The people of the planet must be in action"
In December he wrote about the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference where he warned against:
" brokering a deal that allows the corporations and the oil giants to continue to abuse the earth. Better that there is no deal, so that ordinary citizens can make their choices and voices heard, against the marketing excesses for the rich, allowing some to gorge themselves while others starve"
Brutus was asked once by Dave Zurin how he remained so politically active well into his eighties . Brutus replied:
"This is no time for laurels. This is no time for rest"
Dennis Brutus
" When we marched,

Through slimy mud past riot shielded cops in Alexander

(This is the ghetto)

While children peered wild-eyed from dark windows,

For some of us these were re-runs of earlier apartheid-burdened days.

But, then, it was defiant resolution that drove our hearts and braced our feet.

Now, sadness at betrayal sat sadly on our hearts.

Our shouted slogans hung heavily over us in grimy air.

We winced at familiar oft-repeated lies

Oft-repeated lies." 

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